Last updated: March 3rd, 2015

Isaac Asimov's Robot, Empire and Foundation Series

A couple months ago, a co-worker was asking people for book recommendations. When she mentioned that she particularly likes old sci-fi and wanted something big that would take a while to get through, I recommended Asimov's Robot, Empire and Foundation books. That made me realize that it's been ages since I read any of those books, and maybe I was recommending something that wasn't as good as I remembered. So I decided to re-read the entire series in "chronological" order (i.e. the order in which the stories occur, from those set in the near future to those set many millennia from now). There are actually several different orders you could tackle the books in, especially if you've never read them before, but I'll get into that later on this page.

I decided to write this web page when I took the book Robots and Empire to a local restaurant (I was eating alone, and wanted something to occupy me until the food arrived). I sat at the bar, and a younger guy sitting a couple seats over asked what I was reading. When I said it was an Isaac Asimov book, he had no idea who that was. Which surprised me a bit, to say the least. I know Isaac's been gone for a couple decades now, but come on, he was one of the biggest names in twentieth century sci-fi, and he wrote hundreds of books. His Robot/Empire/Foundation series is a highlight of the genre.

As a counterpoint to that first experience, a month or so later I was reading Pebble in the Sky at another restaurant, and when another guy sitting at the bar saw the cover, he said "Oh, Asimov - he was the 20th century's H. G. Wells". Now that's more like it. Shortly after that I was watching a "documentary" series on BBC America about the history of sci-fi (it seemed like more of a not-very-veiled attempt to promote the latest Dr. Who series), and they mentioned Asimov frequently, especially the Robot and Foundation series, and even had some old black-and-white interview footage with the author himself. Nice.

A quick web search turned up a couple pages about this series of books, but mostly just recommendations of which order to read them in. So it's about time someone came up with a detailed overview. While I'm no sci-fi scholar, I'll take a stab at it.

The series started out as a bunch of short stories published in pulp sci-fi magazines of the 1940s. Asimov's stories had two major themes, robots and the Foundation. In the early 50s, the success of Asimov's novel Pebble in the Sky prompted his publisher to collect those early stories into two novels, the robot stories becoming I, Robot and the Foundation stories becoming the three novels that make up the original Foundation trilogy. The success of those books put Isaac on the map and led dozens of other sci-fi books and stories.

In the 1960s and 70s, Asimov moved away from writing fiction, preferring to publish college textbooks and non-fiction works. But then in the 1980s he not only came back and added more sequels to the Robot and Foundation series, he started finding ways to tie everything together. Events in the later Robot books explain things in the Empire books, and the finale of the Foundation series ties back to the early robot books. When all was said and done, the Robot/Empire/Foundation saga spanned fourteen novels and dozens of short stories, all loosely related and set in the same fictional future timeline.

While each book in the series can stand alone as a self-contained story, taken as a whole they hang together remarkably well and tell the future history of mankind, from the near future where humanoid robots become commonplace to a few centuries from now when overcrowding on Earth leads to the formation of 50 "Spacer" worlds that then become the overlords of Earth. Without giving too much of the plot away, expansion eventually continues until various small kingdoms of planetary systems end up warring with each other. Eventually a unified Galactic Empire is formed. Many centuries later, that Empire is teetering on the edge of collapse, and only the Foundation can prevent humankind from falling into thousands of years of darkness and barbarism. And in the very end, we find out that there's been more going on behind the scenes than anyone realized, and there may be yet another threat to mankind that everyone has overlooked...

I'm not sure how I got started with reading these books. I remember reading Foundation's Edge in high school and even talking a friend into reading it for a book report. From there I think I backtracked to the original Foundation trilogy. And in the 1980s I was fished in by one of those book club deals where you could get a bunch of books for a penny, but then you had to buy so many of their overpriced books for so many months. That was around the same time that Asimov was putting out new Robot and Foundation books at a rapid clip, so that's how I wound up reading those. Then in the early 90s when I found out that the three Empire books were also tied in, I picked up paperback copies of those at a local book store. The whole series has held a place of honor on my bookshelf ever since.

So, enough rambling preview, let's get to the actual books. I'm listing them in "chronological" order as mentioned above, but keep in mind that you don't necessarily have to read them in this order.

Cover image of The Complete Robot

The Complete Robot

There are a few different collections of Asimov's early robot short stories, the most well known of which is probably I, Robot. I went with The Complete Robot because it was being offered through that book club that I belonged to, and it supposedly contained every robot-themed short story that Asimov ever wrote, although I think I discovered later that it's actually missing a couple. At any rate, it includes everything that's in I, Robot plus several other stories. And it sports that awful red dust jacket (not a selling point - I'm just mentioning it in case you were wondering why I chose that cover to display here).

Strictly speaking, if your intent is to read the entire Robot, Empire and Foundation series, then this book should be included. But really, it could be considered optional reading. Most of the stories aren't tied directly to the later books, other than that they set up a society filled with humanoid robots in the near future. Many of the actual stories aren't Asimov's best work, considering that they were written early in his career and haven't aged very well - they sometimes come across as if they were intended to be children's stories, and frequently portray the 21st century as if it's basically the same as the 1940s. While Asimov foresaw great strides in space travel and robotics, in his future computers are still complex, room-filling monstrosities, communication is still done via land-line phones and tickertape, data is stored on tape spools, everyone still reads newspapers, the internet is non-existent and sexism and the old boys network are still A-OK. Regardless, there's still plenty to make this book worth reading.

The most important aspect of these early stories is that they set up the three laws of robotics:
1. a robot may not harm a human or through inaction allow a human to come to harm
2. a robot must obey any order given to it by a human, unless it would break law 1
3. a robot must protect itself, unless doing so would break laws 1 or 2.
These three laws became central to all of Asimov's later robot books, to the point of often being major plot points.

Towards the middle of the book, it changes from being just random stories to collections of tales with recurring characters. There's a group of stories about two guys who travel the galaxy repairing robots and having misadventures along the way. But more importantly, the book introduces the US Robots and Mechanical Men corporation, and their hard-nosed robot psychologist Susan Calvin. A pioneer in both Isaac's fictional world of robotics and in early science fiction in general, Calvin was a strong female character who always outsmarted her male counterparts. You can tell while reading her stories that Asimov loved that character, although in the typical male chauvinist fashion of the era, he had her pining away for men and ending up as a spinster, with any potential husbands repelled by her strong personality and plain looks.

All of the Robot novels that followed use the three laws as a key element, and the ones written in the 80s also occasionally mention details from some of these early stories, particularly the Susan Calvin stories. This was most likely done deliberately to spur interest in The Complete Robot, but you can easily read those books without knowing anything about the earlier stories. They just make for some nice background information.

Finally, there's one story in the book that features detective Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw. Technically, those characters are introduced in The Caves of Steel and the short story in this book is set after the events in The Naked Sun, so if you want to read everything in strictly chronological order, save that story until after you've read those two books. On the other hand, it's not really going to hurt anything for you to read it now, so just finish The Complete Robot and move on to the meat of the series.

I should mention for those who prefer movies to books, the 2004 film I, Robot with Will Smith was based on ideas from Asimov's robot books (like the three laws, and what a robot's definition of "harm" to a human might be), but it tells an original story that Asimov had nothing to do with. It is not a film adaptation of the book I, Robot.

Cover image of 2-fer version of The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun

The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957)

Again, the cover shown here is the dust jacket from the book club version that I own, which is a double edition that includes both The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. I'm kind of wondering if that book club hired a toddler to design their covers - how horrible is that thing?

According to Wikipedia, The Caves of Steel was inspired when an editor told Asimov that he didn't think anyone could successfully combine the genres of mystery and sci-fi. In response, Isaac created the character Elijah Baley, a detective working for the New York City police department several centuries from now. The book is as much a mystery novel as it is sci-fi. Most of Asimov's stories are that way - they have sci-fi trappings (they're set in the future, they involve space travel, or robots or some futuristic technology), but at their heart they're mystery stories or political thrillers or adventure tales, etc.

Anyway, in the future of Caves of Steel, human population has grown to the point where the only way to keep that many people fed and alive is for humans to live in gigantic, mostly underground Cities (with a capital "C") nicknamed the Caves of Steel. People have been living this way for so long that they actually fear going outside - most never do. In this future, a handful of explorers had left Earth hundreds of years earlier, accompanied by humanoid robots that enabled them to settle and terraform new worlds. At the time this story is set, these "Spacers" have grown in power and technological know-how to the point where they have done away with danger and disease on their planets and therefore live for centuries. Their power and long lives allow them to totally dominate Earth politically, but they still fear Earthlings (mostly due to the risk of infections) and so they heavily restrict Earthlings from traveling to their worlds or contacting them in any way. Meanwhile on Earth, despite the government's best efforts, the population has utterly rejected robots since they associate them with the Spacers.

Against this backdrop, a Spacer is found dead in their embassy on Earth. It could lead to horrible retaliation against Earth if no one can get to the bottom of the matter. Due to his friendship with a highly placed official in the police department, Elijah Baley is chosen to investigate the case. The Spacers insist on providing him with a partner and things get very complicated when it turns out that partner is a robot who looks and acts completely human, R. Daneel Olivaw. Solving the case could mean a big promotion for Baley, but he has to figure out how to do so while working with a robot, dealing with Spacers and keeping the robot-fearing public (including his wife) from rioting.

In The Naked Sun, the two are teamed up again, but this time the murder they have to investigate takes place on the Spacer world of Solaria, where the society has become so heavily dependent on robots that humans rarely ever see each other, and in fact have come to dread such contact and avoid it whenever possible. Elijah initially has a difficult time adapting to life outside his underground city, and an even more difficult time getting Solarians to talk to him, but things start looking up when he meets Gladia, the beautiful widow of the murdered man. The problem is that she's the number one suspect, as the only person who could have possibly gotten close enough to her husband to kill him. As the case unfolds, Gladia learns from Elijah that human contact might not be such a bad thing after all.

The two books go well together, which is probably why the book club paired them up. My one complaint about them is that in both cases the resolution of the mystery turns out to be not very satisfactory. But both Elijah and Daneel are great characters, the future Cities and worlds are detailed and well documented and the books are quick and easy page-turners. Once you start reading one, they just seem to fly by. Elijah's constant exclamations of "Jehosaphat!" and jonesing for a smoke definitely date this one a bit, but who knows. Maybe in the future both of those things will come back into style.

Cover image of Robots Of Dawn

The Robots of Dawn (1983)

Decades after writing the original two robot detective novels, Asimov came back to the series (apparently due to fan demand for another Elijah Baley book) with The Robots of Dawn. While he was at it, he figured it would be a good idea to start tying the Robot, Empire and Foundation novels all together - for example, there's some heavy-handed foreshadowing in this book of the idea of "psychohistory" that is the basis for the Foundation novels.

In Robots of Dawn, Baley travels to the first settled and most powerful of the Spacer worlds, Aurora, where he again teams up with Daneel to investigate the "murder" of a robot. Normally, deactivating a robot wouldn't even be a crime, but the case has several complicating factors. To begin with, the robot was a second generation model in Daneel's line, so he looked completely human. The deactivation was involuntary making this a case of "roboticide". The man accused with committing the act is a powerful politician, Hans Falstofe, who is the biggest proponent of helping Earthlings to begin settling new planets again. His political opponents, who fear losing the power that the Spacers enjoy, are dead-set against letting that happen and use this robot deactivation as a scandal to discredit Falstofe. Further complicating things, following the events in The Naked Sun, Gladia moved to Aurora and had secretly married the murdered robot, finding it preferable to the men of Aurora. So once again Elijah has to deal with Gladia the grieving widow.

Elijah has to prove Falstofe's innocence, partly because Hans has become a father figure to Gladia and the thought that he could have murdered her husband would devastate her. But far worse, failure would mean the end of space travel for Earthlings, who would then be trapped on the overcrowded Earth until lack of resources led to mass starvation. Working against him are his fear of open spaces, his lack of knowledge of Auroran customs and the politically powerful Kelden Amidiro, the leader of the movement to keep Earthlings restricted to Earth. As if all that weren't enough, Hans Falstofe himself admits that he's the only human who would have enough robotics knowledge to have committed the crime.

The book introduces a new robot character named Giskard who guards Baley and helps with the investigation. There's something odd about Giskard, and if Elijah can just figure it out, it might help him solve the case.

Robots of Dawn further investigates the idea of the three laws of robotics, with Giskard convincing Daneel that the laws are flawed somehow, and there should be something added to them. The book also introduces a new power for the robots, one which would come to be important in the next book. Like the earlier books though, the resolution to the murder in this one leaves a little to be desired, and the murder itself is really just a red herring that drives the plot forward. Overall the book is a good read though.

Cover image of Robots and Empire

Robots And Empire (1985)

Having gotten back into the robot groove, Asimov followed Robots of Dawn up two years later with Robots and Empire. As the title implies, this book is the bridge between the Robot series and the Empire series. The main characters are Gladia, Daneel and Giskard, and their antagonists are Amidiro and his new underling, Levular Mandamus. The latter comes up with what he thinks is a foolproof plan to destroy Earth, thereby wiping out the "Settler" movement that threatens to supersede the power and authority of the Spacers.

Unlike the earlier Robot novels, this book is more of an adventure tale than a mystery, and it does not star Elijah Baley. It is set around two centuries after Robots of Dawn, so Baley only appears in a few flashbacks. Due to the long lives of Spacers and robots, the other characters remain essentially unchanged. Since the main purpose of this book is to tie the various series together, it jumps around a lot and often strays from the main plot. It makes reference to everything from the early robot short stories to psychohistory, and foreshadows the ending to the whole saga, which Asimov was probably also working on at the time.

The book introduces the character D. G. Baley, a distant descendant of Elijah's who is named after Daneel and Giskard. He's a trader who travels from planet to planet. When he learns that the inhabitants of Solaria have disappeared, he hopes that Gladia's upbringing on Solaria can help him "harvest" some advanced robots from the planet to sell to other Spacers. For those looking for a mystery element, there is the question of what happened to the Solarians, but this book doesn't answer that. The story also continues Giskard and Daneel's search for the flaw in the three laws of robotics, which eventually leads them to come up with a new "zeroth law".

The setting changes from Aurora to Solaria to the Settler planet of Baleyworld and finally to Earth. Much to my amusement when I first read this book, the finale is located just a few miles from where I live. I like to think that the apartment complex where I spent my early 20s will, thousands of years from now, be the site of the final confrontation between Amidiro and the robots. Younger readers might wonder why Asimov chose that location - at the time the book was written, it was only six years since that area was a big deal related to what's going on in the story. The irony is that less than a year after this book came out, unfortunate world events would provide an even more logical site for the scene to have been set.

In the end, the question becomes not whether the robots can save Earth but whether they should. What will their new "zeroth law of robotics" direct them to do? Be forewarned that this book does contain some mild spoilers, so you might want to read all the books from the 1950s first, then come back and read the 80s sequels. That wouldn't be a bad way to approach things, but if you'd rather read them in "chronological" order, this book shouldn't really ruin anything for you. I am a little bothered that this book explains a major property of Earth that is explained in a very different way in The Stars Like Dust, but when you consider that the two books were written 34 years apart with no intention in 1951 of tying the Robot and Empire series together, I guess we can cut Asimov a little slack.

Cover image of The Stars, Like Dust

The Stars, Like Dust (1951)

Thus begins the Empire series. Different people list the three Empire novels in different orders, but to me it seems like The Stars, Like Dust is the obvious starter. Oddly, Asimov himself listed The Currents of Space as coming before this one when he gave the chronological order of the books in the introduction to Prelude to Foundation, but I've always thought this book seemed to be set before Trantor’s empire even started forming, while the empire is mentioned by name and is about half-formed in Currents. So I'm not sure what Asimov was thinking when he wrote his list. At any rate, both books are set long after the events in the Robot novels, and it probably doesn't matter which order you read them in, but I'd recommend starting the Empire series with The Stars, Like Dust.

In this book, humans have spread out across the galaxy, populating most of the planets suitable to life. Planetary systems have banded together into small "kingdoms" which fight wars in an attempt to conquer each other.

Our story begins on Earth, as Biron Farril, the son of the leader of a small world, is about to graduate from college. Months ago he received a request from his father to secretly search for an important document in Earth's archives, one that will supposedly help his people in their fight against the Tyranni (how's that for a terribly obvious sci-fi name?), but before he can find it he's forced to flee the planet when someone attempts to kill him by planting a bomb in his dorm room.

When word reaches him that his father has been executed for treason, Biron tries to get help from the Director of Rhodia, one of his father's most powerful allies. But it seems that the Director has become a puppet for the Tyranni. So Biron flees again, this time with the Director's daughter Artemisia and her dotty uncle Gillbret in tow. It turns out that Gillbret's eccentricity has been mostly an act, and he's secretly been plotting against the Tyranni. In fact, he claims to know of a "rebel planet" that is gearing up to overthrow the Tyranni, and takes Biron and Artemisia to someone who may know more about it. But unbeknownst to any of them, one of the Tyranni leaders is tracking their every movement. Double-crosses abound and few of the characters are what they first appear to be.

One review I read of this book pointed out that it has the "space opera" style of the first Star Wars movie, and the more I think about it the more similarities I see. You have a young man, seemingly powerless, traveling around in space seeking help in his fight against an evil empire. There's the father figure who seems benign at first, but turns out to be more resourceful than anyone thought. There's a feisty princess who gets involved in a love triangle between two of the main characters. And there's a secret rebellion poised to destroy the empire...or is there? I'm not saying that this book was an inspiration for Star Wars or anything, but the parallels are interesting.

Despite being one of the Empire stories, there's really nothing in this book that ties it to the rest of the saga, other than being set in the same general universe and having Asimov's unmistakable writing style. When I first started reading these series, most of the reviews and information I could find only mentioned the Robot and Foundation books, to the point where it was several years before I discovered that the three Empire books were set in the same universe. So, like The Complete Robot, you could almost consider this book to be optional reading, but personally I think it makes a good "bridge" and introduction to the Empire series.

Cover image of The Currents of Space

The Currents of Space (1952)

This one could almost be considered as much a "Foundation prequel" as it is an Empire book. The story falls back on the age-old plot device of amnesia, combined with a "fighting over a galactic monopoly" element that may have inspired Dune. The planet Florina is the only source in the universe of an invaluable crop called kyrt which is used for everything from high fashion to space ship parts. The simple villagers of Florina are basically used as slave labor by overlords from the planet Sark, who are only interested in wringing as much profit out of the kyrt trade as they possibly can. One review I read of this book stated that it's basically a metaphor for the pre-civil war American south, with kyrt taking the place of cotton and, ironically, the darker-skinned Sarkites enslaving the light-skinned Florinians. That might be reading a bit too much into it, but Asimov did admit that he liked to base his sci-fi books on real history.

One day a mysterious, nearly mindless man is found in a ditch near the kyrt fields. A childless villager named Valona "adopts" him, and the locals name him Rik, a slang term for a very unintelligent person. Rik gradually regains the ability to speak, and is soon given a job at the mill. After a year or so of this, Rik begins to remember things, and is horrified to recall that there's some danger which could destroy the world if nothing is done. The problem is, he can't remember what the danger is.

Despite her fears of losing Rik, Valona takes him to the "townman", a sort of village mayor who was educated on Sark as part of a program to give some Florinians a bit of privilege and power in order to keep the others down. The townman wants to help Rik figure out the danger, because he's secretly looking for a weapon he can use to help free Florina from Sark's yoke. His actions accidentally alert the authorities, and soon our main characters find themselves running for their lives. They end up caught in a power struggle between the townman's quest for Florinian independence, the Sark overlords, the headstrong daughter of Sark's most powerful Squire, the guild of space analysts and a young but powerful Trantor empire which has already gobbled up half the galaxy and is bent on taking the kyrt trade for their own.

I was a little disappointed with the plot to this book at first because it seemed fairly clichéd. Even worse, Asimov must have felt that readers wouldn't be able to figure out the amnesia angle, she he included a prologue in which the hero gives spoilers and then has his memory wiped out. So when we meet the "mindless" Rik, we already have a pretty good idea who he is and what's going on. Personally I think the book would have been stronger without that prologue. Fortunately things really start picking up about half-way through, and soon you've got more characters, plots and schemes that you can easily keep track of. The story gets surprisingly dark for Asimov as well, starting with the brutal mind-erasing of the main character and continuing with another character who violently kills multiple people, including innocent bystanders, in order to further his agenda (and protect his own life).

This book ties directly into the Foundation series, in that Trantor plays a large role as a growing power that could unite the galaxy into a single empire. It even has the tone and style of the original Foundation trilogy. The book also ties back to the Robot series in that the events on Earth at the end of Robots and Empire are indirectly referenced. However, it's no longer universally accepted that Earth was the birthplace of humanity, or even that Earth actually exists, which sets this book long after The Stars, Like Dust and foreshadows the later Foundation sequels and prequels.

Cover image of Pebble in the Sky

Pebble in the Sky (1950)

While Pebble in the Sky is the last of the three Empire books in the chronology, it was actually the first one published. It's the only book in the entire saga set at the height of the Galactic Empire, in Trantor's golden age, just over 800 years since the Empire's founding. Ironically, the book hardly deals with the Empire at all, instead it is set entirely on Earth.

Like Currents of Space, this book begins with one of the most overused ideas of sci-fi and fantasy - an "everyman" who is magically transported to another world where he has to be the hero despite being a fish out of water. In this case it's a mid-20th-century retiree named Joseph Schwartz who suddenly finds himself transported thousands of years into the future by an accident at a nuclear research lab. The details of said accident are left extremely vague, as if even Asimov couldn't believe he was falling back on such a comic-book premise.

Anyway, when our 60-something protagonist arrives in the future, it turns out there's a Logan's Run-like law stating that all unproductive people and anyone over 60 must be put to death, in order to conserve the planet's dwindling resources. He quickly finds shelter with a couple who have been hiding the wife's wheelchair-bound father for years. But Schwartz can't commuincate with them, because in the intervening centuries the English language has changed. Eventually the kindly couple decide that the best course of action would be to volunteer this incomprehensible stranger for a dangerous medical experiment rather than harbor a potential fugitive.

The experiment improves Schwartz's intelligence, to the point where he learns the local language in just days. Furthermore, it inexplicably gives him the ability to detect other people's minds from a distance and even attack people mentally. Such psionic powers were a frequent element of Asimov's writing, and form another theme that ties the Robot, Empire and Foundation series together.

Meanwhile, the question of whether Earth was the birthplace of humanity has now reached a point where the idea is laughable to most scholars. Earthlings are looked down upon as nearly sub-human, and the popular theory of human origin is that various "races" of human-like beings evolved independently on multiple planets, and then inter-bred once space travel made that possible. One of the Empire's most successful archeologists, Bel Arvardan, doesn't buy that theory, so he organizes an expedition to Earth to try to uncover the truth.

Soon Arvardan meets Dr. Shekt, who performed the experiment that improved Schwart's mental powers. Those three, along with Shekt's beautiful and brilliant daughter Pola, must thwart a revenge plan hatched by Earth's true rulers, the "Ancients", which could kill everyone in the Galaxy. While that's going on, Arvardan has to come to terms with his feelings for Pola, who doesn't fit his prejudiced stereotype of a sub-human Earth girl.

Like Currents of Space, this book doesn't seem too promising at the start, but it quickly gets interesting and it provides more details about this fictional universe. Like most Asimov stories, this one has multiple interweaving plot lines, but in this case the "man transplanted in time who gets psychic abilities" plot and the "galactic archeologist who has to overcome his prejudice" plot don't really gel together very well - they could have been two separate books. One review that I read pointed out that a lot of the elements of the story are taken almost directly from Jewish history and their struggles with the Roman empire. That went right over my head, but it makes perfect sense since the Foundation series was inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire.

Cover image of Foundation

Foundation (1951)

According to the introduction of the paperback edition that I own, in the early 1940s Asimov was on his way to meet with a magazine editor to pitch a new sci-fi story he was working on. The problem was, he didn't have a new story, or even an idea for one. He had recently read "The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire", so maybe he could base a story on that. By the end of the meeting, he and the editor had worked out the groundwork for a whole series of stories, set tens of thousands of years after the above Empire books, which would detail the collapse of that empire and the resulting wars and attempts to save the empire. Asimov took the concept and ran with it. He even ended the first story with a cliffhanger, to force the editor to buy a second story. Eventually the first group of short stories were cobbled together into a novel, complete with a new introductory story, and published as Foundation.

Due to the episodic nature of the book, there are several heros, but above them all is the elderly Hari Seldon, who uses his newly created science of psychohistory to predict the Empire's fall, and calculate the events that would guide humanity to a second Empire in just a thousand years, instead of the 30,000 years of war and chaos which would occur otherwise. The story begins with him setting up a Foundation of scientists and intellectuals on the planet Terminus, at the very edge of the galaxy, in order to write an encyclopedia documenting and preserving all of mankind's knowledge. What most of the scientists involved don't realize is that the Encyclopedia Galactica is just a ruse - the Foundation was really created because psychohistory predicted that putting knowledgable scientists out at the edge of the galaxy, away from the crumbling center, was the best way of seeding a second Empire.

The Foundation's precarious position, far from the Emperor who supposedly protects them and surrounded by neighboring worlds who covet their technology and power, quickly leads to trouble. Soon they have four Kingdoms lining up to conquer them. The encyclopedia researchers refuse to believe that the crumbling Empire can't protect them, so it's up to mayor Salvor Hardin to find a way to keep the Kingdoms at bay. As if to prove the validity of his fears, a hologram of the long-dead Seldon appears in a museum to reveal the true nature of the Foundation and to tell them that they've reached the first psychohistorical crisis...and that the solution should be obvious (although he can't tell them that solution, as it would affect their actions and throw off future predictions).

Later, having kept the Foundation alive via a policy of appeasement and balancing the four kingdoms against each other, mayor Hardin finds himself figuratively attacked by other Foundation politicians who want war, and literally attacked by the strongest of the four Kingdoms, which sends its Navy against the Foundation. Funny thing is though, if you let the planet you plan to conquer build all your technology for you, including the flagship of your Navy, that has a way of coming back to bite you.

Nearly a century after Hardin established the Foundation's policy of using technology and religion to control the neighboring kingdoms, the Foundation are the practical rulers of the galaxy's periphery. But the still-uncontrolled barbarian worlds nearer to the remnants of the old Empire have learned their lesson and are starting to refuse "missionaries" from the Foundation. Master Trader Hober Mallow is sent on a mission to determine why Foundation ships are beginning to disappear near one of those worlds. He discovers that the Empire itself is starting to arm the outer kingdoms in order to form a protective barrier against the barbarians out in the periphery. Mallow uses every trick in the book to get himself elected mayor of Terminus, so he can enact his bold plan of...doing nothing. Which, it turns out, is brilliant.

As Asimov himself points out in the introduction, there's not a lot of action in these tales, and what little there is always seems to take place "off screen". And yet the original Foundation stories make for an interesting read. I remember blowing through this book pretty quickly the first time I read it, and while the conclusion of the last story is a bit of an anticlimax, I was already anxiously looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

Cover image of Foundation and Empire

Foundation and Empire (1952)

This book combines two fairly lengthy stories that Asimov had published in sci-fi magazines in the '40s. In the first story, one of the most popluar and successful Generals in the Empire's military begins to hear rumors of "magicians" out at the edge of the galaxy who could threaten the Empire. So he takes several of their most powerful remaining war ships and sets out to conquer the Foundation. Meanwhile the Emperor's top advisor, who secretly dreams of ruling them Empire himself someday, joins the expedition in order to keep an eye on the General and see to it that he doesn't become too popular or too powerful.

The General recruits the son of a character from the Hober Mallow story in the previous book, hoping that he'll have knowledge of how to beat the Foundation. That character secretly plots the overthrow of the Empire however, so when a Foundation trader is captured, the two of them team up to try to undermine the General. In the end, all of their efforts prove futile, but the General's attempt to conquer the Foundation fails anyway when the Emperor grows suspicious of two of his most powerful underlings working together and recalls them both to Trantor for trial and execution. Which, it turns out, is exactly what Hari Seldon had predicted would happen hundreds of years ago.

So at this point, Asimov had kind of painted himself into a corner. Since the "Seldon Plan" covered everything, it didn't really matter what the characters in his stories did - each crisis would work itself out by the laws of psychohistory. After the disappointing ending to the final story in Foundation, it was doubly disappointing to encounter another deus ex machina at the end of the first half of Foundation and Empire. But how could the author break out of this rut? Isaac came up with a brilliant idea. What if something threw a monkey wrench into Seldon's plan? What if there was some element or individual that psychohistory could not possibly foresee? Not only does that potentially wreck the Seldon plan, but it leaves the overconfident Foundation ripe for the picking, since they now believe that they don't have to lift a finger and history will just take care of them. Enter the Mule.

In the second story, a renegade leader who calls himself The Mule has arisen out of nowhere and is conquering planets with very little resistance. It turns out that the Mule has powerful psychic abilities that he uses to bend people's emotions to his will. The Foundation meanwhile is on the verge of civil war, with the Traders who did the work to build the Foundation's influence and power scratching out pauper's lives on barren rock planets while the profits of their work go to fat industrialists and the now hereditary monarchy government back on Terminus. Much to the shock of the leaders of the Foundation, when Hari Seldon's hologram makes its next appearance, he talks about the successful conclusion of a civil war that never happened, because both sides were too busy worrying about the Mule. The Foundation seems to have come off the track of Seldon's plan!

The son of one of the head Traders and his wife are sent in search of the Mule, in the hope that they can convince him to help them overthrow the Foundation's goverment. They team up first with a top military spy, Han Pritcher, who also dreams of a return to democracy for the Foundation. Later they're joined by the Foundation's best psychologist, Ebling Mis, who has been trying to duplicate Hari Seldon's work. They also end up harboring a grotesque clown named Magnifico, who was previously the Mule's court jester, but who escaped and is now running for his life. As they flee from world to world, the Mule always seems to be one step behind them, conquering each planet they visit - even Terminus.

When the Foundation was created, there were hints that a Second Foundation had also been set up, but its location was described vaguely as "the opposite end of the galaxy" or "at Star's End". Out of desperation, our heros travel to the great library on what's left of the old Empire's capital planet of Trantor (recently sacked by rebellion), hoping to find hints to the Second Foundation's whereabouts. Magnifico seems oddly intent on helping them, even to the point of killing the Emperor's son with a "visi-sonor", a musical instrument that can generate dreams...or nightmares. After nearly killing himself by researching night and day for weeks straight, Ebling Mis finally discovers the location of the Second Foundation, and that's when the real surprises begin.

Cover image of Second Foundation

Second Foundation (1953)

This book combines the last two Foundation stories that Asimov had published serially in the 1940s. The first story is a fairly short one (around 75 pages), with the second story taking up the bulk of the book.

In that first story, the Mule is still in power and is determined to find the Second Foundation, which he now knows to be a group that Hari Seldon set up to perfect the powers of mind control and further extend his science of Psychohistory. The Mule sends out an expedition headed by Han Pritcher (who is now under the Mule's emotional control) and a young man named Bail Channis who the Mule hopes will have more drive and initiative because he hasn't been forcibly converted to the cause, but serves the Mule willingly. Channis has a theory on where the Second Foundation may be located, based on the hint that it's "at Star's End". He and Pritcher travel to the kingdom of Tazenda, which sounds a bit like Star's End and from observatories on Trantor would look like it was at the end of the galaxy (because it sits inside a dark nebula).

They travel to a near-barren, snow-covered, world of desperately poor farmers called Rossem which is under the control of Tazenda, hoping to do some research and confirm Channis' theory. But once there, every character's motivations becomes suspect, and when the Mule himself makes an appearance, the end game with the Second Foundation is reached. In the battle of wits and mental force that follows, we learn of misdirection after misdirection, as the fate of the Foundations (and future of the Galaxy) hangs in the balance.

The second story takes place several decades later, long after the death of the Mule. The original Foundation is finally its own master again, or so they think. But there's a small group of conspirators who meet in the home of Dr. Darell, a scientist who studies brain waves and has been trying to find a way to detect and defend against the Second Foundation. This small group believes that the Second Foundation is still controlling their fate, and they want it stopped. Meanwhile the reader is finally let in on the Second Foundation's plans, and it turns out those First Foundation conspirators are right to be worried. Hari Seldon's plan all along was for the first Foundation to conquer the galaxy and set up a second Empire, and then for the mind-controlling Second Foundationers to move in and form a ruling class that will manipulate people into maintaining a peacful, stable society.

Dr. Darell's group send mild-mannered librarian Homir Munn to Kalgan, the planet at the heart of the Mule's old empire. Munn collects biographical data about the Mule as a hobby, so it would seem natural for him to travel to Kalgan, but his secret mission is to determine if the Mule ever found the location of the Second Foundation. What he doesn't know is that Dr. Darell's precocious fourteen year old daughter Arcadia has stowed away on his ship. Once on Kalgan though, Arcadia discovers too much and is forced to flee to Trantor with a kindly old farming couple.

Eventually the Foundation is forced to fight a war against what's left of the Kalgan mini-empire. As that battle rages, Dr. Darell perfects a device that can detect members of the Second Foundation and cause them extreme pain. Many theories are put forward as to the location of the Second Foundation. From his research of the Mule's records, Munn has decided that there is no Second Foundation, that it was all an elaborate ruse by Seldon to give the Foundation confidence. Another conspirator proposes that Kalgan is the Second Foundation's base, since it was never conquered during the many wars as the old Empire collapsed, and the Mule was held in check there. Finally, based on the old clue that the Second Foundation is at "the opposite end of the galaxy", Terminus itself comes under suspicion because the galaxy is a disc, and if you follow the edge of the disc from Terminus, the "other end" is back at the starting point. What better hiding place than in plain sight, and putting both Foundations on the same planet would make it easy for the Second Foundation to control the first. The Second Foundation is found and stopped. Or is it? If the last few pages of this book don't make you want to go back and re-read this story, if not the entire trilogy, then you're a lot better at seeing twist endings coming up than I am.

Cover image of Foundation's Edge

Foundation's Edge (1982)

As he did with the Robot series, Asimov came back to the Foundation series decades after the original books came out and started adding sequels (and prequels) in the 1980s. I'm pretty sure this was the first book of the entire saga that I read. I could be completely off base, but I have a faint memory of seeing the cover in a book store (or it might even have been a grocery store) and thinking it looked interesting, so I gave it a shot. Little did I know that it would lead to a collection of over a dozen books that I'd still be re-reading decades later. At any rate, this bok gave Asimov a lot of room to stretch out - it's around three times longer than the longest previous Foundation story, and he used that space to add a lot of detail and character development. And for the first time, the story is told as much from the Second Foundation's perspective as the First's.

Foundation's Edge features a couple of my favorite characters of the entire saga, the adventurous politician Golan Trevize and his scholarly bookworm sidekick Janov Pelorat. Both are members of the (First) Foundation. Trevize believes that the Second Foundation was not really destroyed, because the damage that the Mule did to the thousand year plan seems to have repaired itself, and the original plan is right back on schedule. While most attribute this to the brilliance of psychohistory, Trevize is convinced that the Second Foundation is still secretly pulling the strings to keep everything on track. But when he starts announcing this publicly, the mayor of Terminus sends him into exile, saying that it's for his own good - if the Second Foundation really does still exist, she doesn't want them coming after him. Secretly, she believes that they do still exist and is hoping that Trevize will act as a "lightning rod" that will draw them out into the open where she can attack them. Asimov originally wanted to call the book "Lightning Rod", but the publisher insisted on a title with the word Foundation in it, to keep with the previous books.

As a cover story, the mayor sends Trevize on a quest with the scholar Pelorat - to find the mythic planet of human origin, Earth. As the hunt proceedes, Trevize begins to wonder if the clue that the Second Foundation is located at "the other end of the galaxy" might be speaking chronologically, meaning that they're based on the oldest populated planet in the galaxy, since Terminus was the newest at the time that Seldon made that statement. He thinks that such a "forgotten" planet would be the perfect home for the secretive Second Foundation, and soon he's more determined to find Earth than Pelorat.

Meanwhile Speaker Stor Gendibal of the Second Foundation has also become concerned that the Seldon Plan is progressing too perfectly. Granted, the Second Foundation has been pulling strings to keep everything on track, but some deviation is always to be expected. The fact that the plan has been unfolding absolutely perfectly makes Gendibal suspect that some even more subtle power must be behind it, with the same goal - to eventually control the second Empire. When natives of the planet Trantor start acting oddly and Gendibal finds evidence that they've been tampered with in a way too subtle to have been the Second Foundation's work, he confronts the Speakers' Table. Soon he also finds himself exiled and given the task of persuing Trevize in the hopes that he'll lead the Second Foundation to this unknown new group.

The story reaches its climax on the planet Gaia, where an unexpected third option for the galaxy's future is presented, and Trevize must make a choice that will affect all of mankind.

Cover image of Foundation and Earth

Foundation and Earth (1986)

Chronologically the final book of the series, and at nearly 500 pages also the longest one, I believe. To be honest, during my recent re-read of the series it took me a while to get through this one, partially because I didn't want the saga to be over, but also partially because for the first 450 pages or so this book isn't the most compelling read. I get the feeling that Asimov was considered beyond editing by this point, but this book really could have had a couple hundred pages knocked out of it without much loss. That said, if you've been reading the full saga from back in the robot story days and the last 30 page of this book don't totally blow your mind, then nothing will.

The story continues the tale of Golan Trevize and Janov Pelorat and their search for Earth, this time accompanied by a native of planet Gaia named Bliss. In what might have been a bit of wish fulfilment by Asimov, the beautiful young Bliss has fallen in love with the late-middle-aged scholar Pelorat.

Unsatisfied with the reasoning behind his decision at the end of Foundation's Edge, Trevize has a feeling that finding Earth will provide him with the answers he seeks. A good bit of the book is given over to Trevize and Bliss arguing about his decision, with her maintaining that he made the right choice, and him worrying that he didn't as they travel to world after world after world looking for Earth and meeting near-disaster everywhere they go.

This book ties in with the early robot detective novels as Trevize and his group explore some of the original fifty Spacer worlds. We even find out what happened to the Solarians who disappeared way back in Robots and Empire.

When Trevize, Pelorat and Bliss do finally reach Earth, they're in for the biggest surprise in the entire series. Just when you think you know what's going on, you find that a character you never expected has been secretly pulling the strings and the ending puts a whole new spin on everything.

The big problem with this book is that it ends with a cliffhanger. Asimov does an amazing job of wrapping up all the loose ends and could have put a big period at the end of the entire saga with this one...but then in literally the last paragraph he introduces a new uncertainty that seems to indicate that he was planning on writing at least one more book, one that never saw the light of day due to his untimely death. The cliffhanger? While visiting Solaria, our heroes pick up a new character. A character who is already very powerful, and who is about to become even more powerful, on whom the entire future of the galaxy will hang...but who may not be motivated by the best interests of humanity.

Also, this story is set approximately half-way through the Foundation's thousand-year plan. While the events of this book (and Foundations's Edge and, really, everything since the Mule first showed up) may have made that thousand-year plan obsolete, it still would have been nice if Asimov had come up with some more definitive ending for the Seldon Plan. It seems like Isaac was headed in that direction with the Gaia storyline, but then he had to go and throw that ambiguous final paragraph into this book. Oh well, I guess we'll just have to enjoy the books as they stand, or else dream up our own ending.

Cover image of Prelude to Foundation

Prelude to Foundation (1988)

As the 1990s approached, Asimov's health was beginning to decline, and he probably knew he only had one or two more Foundation books in him. But instead of writing the sequel to Foundation and Earth hinted at by that book's ending, Asimov decided to write prequels instead. He wanted to flesh out the background story of Hari Seldon and his invention of psychohistory.

A humble mathematician from a backwoods planet, Seldon travels to Trantor to present a paper at a convention. He considers the subject of that paper, psychohistory, to be nothing more than an intellectual exercise. What if history could be studied in enough detail that mathematical "laws" could be developed that would predict how any large body of humans would react in any given situation? Using those laws, it would be theoretically possible to statistically predict the probable future based on data gathered from the quadrillions of galactic citizens. While Hari considers it nothing more than an interesting theory, those in power (and those intent on keeping the Empire from falling) immediately take note. Soon Hari and his bodyguard/companion Dors Venabili are on the run, hiding in various sections of Trantor while Hari tries to work out who's chasing him, and Dors encourages him to work on psychohistory.

Despite this book taking place earlier than the other Foundation novels, I would HIGHLY recommend reading the prequel novels (this one and Forward the Foundation) last, especially if you're reading the series for the first time. Asimov seems to have made the assumption that anyone reading this book would have already read all the others, so there are SPOILERS GALORE. The ending of Foundation and Earth is one of the coolest things in the entire series, and if you read this book first it'll totally ruin the surprise there. So take my advice - save the "prequel" books for last.

If you want further justification for jumping out of "chronological" order, Asimov precedes each chapter in this book with a foreshadowing quote from the Encyclopedia Galactica, which was published long after the events in the other Foundation novels. So you can look at the two prequel novels as if they are histories written long after the events in the other Foundation books. I really wish Asimov had expressly written the prequels that way - start with some crusty old history professor telling his class about the earliest days of the Foundation, then flashback to the events in this book.

Since the plot details of Prelude to Foundation are so rich in spoilers, I won't say too much more about it, other than that it serves as a nice little travelogue of Trantor, the planet-spanning, enclosed capital city of the Empire. It's the ultimate "cave of steel". For fans who had read the original trilogy and the Empire books and wanted to know more about Trantor, this book was a good read just for that reason.

Cover image of ForwardTheFoundation

Forward the Foundation (1993)

This was the last of the Robot, Empire and Foundation books that Asimov wrote, and one of the last things he ever published. At this point his health was bad and he knew he wasn't going to be around much longer, so he wanted to wrap things up. Sadly, he didn't write the sequel to Foundation and Earth that would have polished off the loose end left dangling there or completed the thousand year span set up at the beginning of the series. Instead he decided to continue the story started in Prelude to Foundation, chronicling Hari Seldon's later life as he gains status in the Empire, grows older, loses those nearest and dearest to him and battles to complete psychohistory before it's too late.

Many have pointed out that this book is basically a "fictional autobiography", with the elderly Asimov casting himself as Hari. As such it's an important entry in his catalog, but unfortunately it's not all that great a Foundation novel. It contains more spoilers, contradicts some things already established in previous books and is kind of a depressing read. I'd almost say that this is another "optional" book in the saga. The pros of saving the "prequel" novels for last is that you save yourself potential spoiliers for the other books. The big con is that it makes the series end on a weak note, instead of wrapping up strongly with Foundation and Earth. Regardless of that though, I'd still recommend reading the prequels last.

Bonus points to readers who spot the fleeting reference to The Currents of Space in this book.

Conclusion

In the end, Asimov's greatest strengths were his intelligence, work ethic and the fact that he was just a really good story teller. According to Wikipedia, his published works span nine of the ten Dewey Decimal system categories, so his interests were varied, but he'll probably always be best remembered for his science fiction. Even when his stories included the latest scientific theories of his era, he was able to make them engaging and straightforward enough to connect with the average reader - he's not one of those "hard" sci-fi writers that beat the reader over the head with their impressive knowledge of science. Asimov knew his stuff, but the scientific aspects of his books support the story, not vice-versa.

His main characters are generally likable people that the reader can relate to. The situations he puts them in are often stereotypical for sci-fi, but part of that may be because other authors have "borrowed" so much from Asimov over the years. This may be damning with faint praise, but he kind of reminds me of a sci-fi version of Stephen King. His books will probably never be held up by serious literature scholars as "great writing", but once you start reading one you often find yourself turning page after page, wanting to see what's going to happen next, and before you know it, you've finished the book.

To modern readers, some elements of these books will seem a little dated. Some of the science has since been "debunked", for example each of the Empire novels has an Afterword, written by Asimov in the 1980s, apologizing for errors in scientific theories put forth in the book. The author had no way of knowing in the 1950s that one day we'd have super-powerful computers in the palm of our hands, or instantaneous communication from anywhere, etc. Just as we have no idea what sort of technology will be common 60 years from now. But by setting his stories tens of thousands of years in the future, Asimov got around some of the dangers of making predictions. We can look at the movie 2001 now and say that, yes it's a great movie, but its predictions of what the year 2001 would be like were way off. But we won't be around in 20,001 to see how far off Isaac was.

Speaking of movies, I was going to say that I was surprised that none of these books have been turned into movies yet (not counting the I, Robot film which wasn't bad, but which was only loosely based on Asimov's writings) . With modern computer animation and special effects, it seems like these books would be a natural for filming. I was even going to suggest putting Peter Jackson on it, based on his success with the Lord of the Rings movies (but then the mess he made of the Hobbit movies made me think otherwise). Imagine my surprise when I read on Wikipedia that New Line Cinema had spent over a million dollars trying to develop a Foundation Trilogy set of films, and finally decided to give up on it and make the Lord of the Rings movies instead. Now I hear that HBO is thinking of doing a TV series based on the Foundation books. Hopefully they'll have better luck.

Anyway, if you're a science fiction fan and are looking for some classic stuff to sink your teeth into, give Asimov's Robot, Empire and Foundation books a try. If you've already read the whole series and were just checking out this page to get one more person's opinion, I hope it inspires you to maybe re-read some (or all) of the books.

Oh, and don't forget to pick up a bottle of Isaac Asimov Body Splash (part of the Foundation Trilogy gift set).