The story of our future begins with the Foundation.
Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read
For twelve thousand years the Galactic Empire has ruled supreme. Now it is dying. Only Hari Seldon, creator of the revolutionary science of psychohistory, can see into the future—a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that will last thirty thousand years. To preserve knowledge and save humanity, Seldon gathers the best minds in the Empire—both scientists and scholars—and brings them to a bleak planet at the edge of the galaxy to serve as a beacon of hope for future generations. He calls this sanctuary the Foundation.
But soon the fledgling Foundation finds itself at the mercy of corrupt warlords rising in the wake of the receding Empire. And mankind’s last best hope is faced with an agonizing choice: submit to the barbarians and live as slaves—or take a stand for freedom and risk total destruction.
About the Author
Isaac Asimov began his Foundation series at the age of twenty-one, not realizing that it would one day be considered a cornerstone of science fiction. During his legendary career, Asimov penned more than 470 books on subjects ranging from science to Shakespeare to history, though he was most loved for his award-winning science fiction sagas, which include the Robot, Empire, and Foundation series. Named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction Writers of America, Asimov entertained and educated readers of all ages for close to five decades. He died, at the age of seventy-two, in April 1992.
Date of Birth:January 20, 1920
Date of Death:April 6, 1992
Place of Birth:Petrovichi, Russia
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:Columbia University, B.S. in chemistry, 1939; M.A. in chemistry, 1941; Ph.D. in biochemistry, 1948
Read an Excerpt
HARI SELDON—. . . born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Era; died 12,069. The dates are more commonly given in terms of the current Foundational Era as -79 to the year 1 F.E. Born to middle-class parents on Helicon, Arcturus sector (where his father, in a legend of doubtful authenticity, was a tobacco grower in the hydroponic plants of the planet), he early showed amazing ability in mathematics. Anecdotes concerning his ability are innumerable, and some are contradictory. At the age of two, he is said to have . . .
. . . Undoubtedly his greatest contributions were in the field of psychohistory. Seldon found the field little more than a set of vague axioms; he left it a profound statistical science. . . .
. . . The best existing authority we have for the details of his life is the biography written by Gaal Dornick who, as a young man, met Seldon two years before the great mathematician's death. The story of the meeting . . .
His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times on the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circled a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.
There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.
To Gaal, this trip was the undoubted climax of his young, scholarly life. He had been in space before so that the trip, as a voyage and nothing more, meant little to him. To be sure, he had traveled previously only as far as Synnax's only satellite in order to get the data on the mechanics of meteor driftage which he needed for his dissertation, but space-travel was all one whether one travelled half a million miles, or as many light years.
He had steeled himself just a little for the Jump through hyper-space, a phenomenon one did not experience in simple interplanetary trips. The Jump remained, and would probably remain forever, the only practical method of travelling between the stars. Travel through ordinary space could proceed at no rate more rapid than that of ordinary light (a bit of scientific knowledge that belonged among the items known since the forgotten dawn of human history), and that would have meant years of travel between even the nearest of inhabited systems. Through hyper-space, that unimaginable region that was neither space nor time, matter nor energy, something nor nothing, one could traverse the length of the Galaxy in the interval between two neighboring instants of time.
Gaal had waited for the first of those jumps with a little dread curled gently in his stomach, and it ended in nothing more than a trifling jar, a little internal kick which ceased an instant before he could be sure he had felt it. That was all.
And after that, there was only the ship, large and glistening; the cool production of 12,000 years of Imperial progress; and himself, with his doctorate in mathematics freshly obtained and an invitation from the great Hari Seldon to come to Trantor and join the vast and somewhat mysterious Seldon Project.
What Gaal was waiting for after the disappointment of the Jump was that first sight of Trantor. He haunted the View-room. The steel shutter-lids were rolled back at announced times and he was always there, watching the hard brilliance of the stars, enjoying the incredible hazy swarm of a star cluster, like a giant conglomeration of fireflies caught in mid-motion and stilled forever. At one time there was the cold, blue-white smoke of a gaseous nebula within five light years of the ship, spreading over the window like distant milk, filling the room with an icy tinge, and disappearing out of sight two hours later, after another Jump.
The first sight of Trantor's sun was that of a hard, white speck all but lost in a myriad such, and recognizable only because it was pointed out by the ship's guide. The stars were thick here near the Galactic center. But with each Jump, it shone more brightly, drowning out the rest, paling them and thinning them out.
An officer came through and said, "View-room will be closed for the remainder of the trip. Prepare for landing."
Gaal had followed after, clutching at the sleeve of the white uniform with the Spaceship-and-Sun of the Empire on it.
He said, "Would it be possible to let me stay? I would like to see Trantor."
The officer smiled and Gaal flushed a bit. It occurred to him that he spoke with a provincial accent.
The officer said, "We'll be landing on Trantor by morning."
"I mean I want to see it from Space."
"Oh. Sorry, my boy. If this were a space-yacht we might manage it. But we're spinning down, sun-side. You wouldn't want to be blinded, burnt, and radiation-scarred all at the same time, would you?"
Gaal started to walk away.
The officer called after him, "Trantor would only be a gray blur anyway, Kid. Why don't you take a space-tour once you hit Trantor. They're cheap."
Gaal looked back, "Thank you very much."
It was childish to feel disappointed, but childishness comes almost as naturally to a man as to a child, and there was a lump in Gaal's throat. He had never seen Trantor spread out in all its incredibility, as large as life, and he hadn't expected to have to wait longer.
The ship landed in a medley of noises. There was the far-off hiss of the atmosphere cutting and sliding past the metal of the ship. There was the steady drone of the conditioners fighting the heat of friction, and the slower rumble of the engines enforcing deceleration. There was the human sound of men and women gathering in the debarkation rooms and the grind of the hoists lifting baggage, mail, and freight to the long axis of the ship, from which they would be later moved along to the unloading platform.
Gaal felt the slight jar that indicated the ship no longer had an independent motion of its own. Ship's gravity had been giving way to planetary gravity for hours. Thousands of passengers had been sitting patiently in the debarkation rooms which swung easily on yielding force-fields to accommodate its orientation to the changing direction of the gravitational forces. Now they were crawling down curving ramps to the large, yawning locks.
Gaal's baggage was minor. He stood at a desk, as it was quickly and expertly taken apart and put together again. His visa was inspected and stamped. He himself paid no attention.
This was Trantor! The air seemed a little thicker here, the gravity a bit greater, than on his home planet of Synnax, but he would get used to that. He wondered if he would get used to immensity.
Debarkation Building was tremendous. The roof was almost lost in the heights. Gaal could almost imagine that clouds could form beneath its immensity. He could see no opposite wall; just men and desks and coverging floor till it faded out in haze.
The man at the desk was speaking again. He sounded annoyed. He said, "Move on, Dornick." He had to open the visa, look again, before he remembered the name.
Gaal said, "Where—where—"
The man at the desk jerked a thumb, "Taxis to the right and third left."
Gaal moved, seeing the glowing twists of air suspended high in nothingness and reading, "TAXIS TO ALL POINTS."
A figure detached itself from anonymity and stopped at the desk, as Gaal left. The man at the desk looked up and nodded briefly. The figure nodded in return and followed the young immigrant.
He was in time to hear Gaal's destination.
Gaal found himself hard against a railing.
The small sign said, "Supervisor." The man to whom the sign referred did not look up. He said, "Where to?"
Gaal wasn't sure, but even a few seconds hesitation meant men queuing in line behind him.
The Supervisor looked up, "Where to?"
Gaal's funds were low, but there was only this one night and then he would have a job. He tried to sound nonchalant: "A good hotel, please."
The Supervisor was unimpressed. "They're all good. Name one."
Gaal said, desperately, "The nearest one, please."
The Supervisor touched a button. A thin line of light formed along the floor, twisting among others which brightened and dimmed in different colors and shades. A ticket was shoved into Gaal's hands. It glowed faintly.
The Supervisor said, "One point twelve."
Gaal fumbled for the coins. He said, "Where do I go?"
"Follow the light. The ticket will keep glowing as long as you're pointed in the right direction."
Gaal looked up and began walking. There were hundreds creeping across the vast floor, following their individual trails, sifting and straining themselves through intersection points to arrive at their respective destinations.
His own trail ended. A man in glaring blue and yellow uniform, shining and new in unstainable plastotextile, reached for his two bags.
"Direct line to the Luxor," he said.
The man who followed Gaal heard that. He also heard Gaal say, "Fine," and watched him enter the blunt-nosed vehicle.
The taxi lifted straight up. Gaal stared out the curved, transparent window, marvelling at the sensation of airflight within an enclosed structure and clutching instinctively at the back of the driver's seat. The vastness contracted and the people became ants in random distribution. The scene contracted further and began to slide backward.
There was a wall ahead. It began high in the air and extended upward out of sight. It was riddled with holes that were the mouths of tunnels. Gaal's taxi moved toward one, then plunged into it. For a moment, Gaal wondered idly how his driver could pick out one among so many.
There was now only blackness, with nothing but the past-flashing of a colored signal light to relieve the gloom. The air was full of a rushing sound.
Gaal leaned forward against deceleration then and the taxi popped out of the tunnel and descended to ground-level once more.
"The Luxor Hotel," said the driver, unnecessarily. He helped Gaal with his baggage, accepted a tenth-credit tip with a businesslike air, picked up a waiting passenger, and was rising again.
In all this, from the moment of debarkation, there had been no glimpse of sky.
TRANTOR— . . . At the beginning of the thirteenth millennium, this tendency reached its climax. As the center of the Imperial Government for unbroken hundreds of generations and located, as it was, toward the central regions of the Galaxy among the most densely populated and industrially advanced worlds of the system, it could scarcely help being the densest and richest clot of humanity the Race had ever seen.
Its urbanization, progressing steadily, had finally reached the ultimate. All the land surface of Trantor, 75,000,000 square miles in extent, was a single city. The population, at its height, was well in excess of forty billions. This enormous population was devoted almost entirely to the administrative necessities of Empire, and found themselves all too few for the complications of the task. (It is to be remembered that the impossibility of proper administration of the Galactic Empire under the uninspired leadership of the later Emperors was a considerable factor in the Fall.) Daily, fleets of ships in the tens of thousands brought the produce of twenty agricultural worlds to the dinner tables of Trantor. . . .
Its dependence upon the outer worlds for food and, indeed, for all necessities of life, made Trantor increasingly vulnerable to conquest by siege. In the last millennium of the Empire, the monotonously numerous revolts made Emperor after Emperor conscious of this, and Imperial policy became little more than the protection of Trantor's delicate jugular vein. . . .
Gaal was not certain whether the sun shone, or, for that matter, whether it was day or night. He was ashamed to ask. All the planet seemed to live beneath metal. The meal of which he had just partaken had been labeled luncheon, but there were many planets which lived a standard timescale that took no account of the perhaps inconvenient alternation of day and night. The rate of planetary turnings differed, and he did not know that of Trantor.
At first, he had eagerly followed the signs to the "Sun Room" and found it but a chamber for basking in artificial radiation. He lingered a moment or two, then returned to the Luxor's main lobby.
He said to the room clerk, "Where can I buy a ticket for a planetary tour?"
"When will it start?"
"You just missed it. Another one tomorrow. Buy a ticket now and we'll reserve a place for you."
"Oh." Tomorrow would be too late. He would have to be at the University tomorrow. He said, "There wouldn't be an observation tower—or something? I mean, in the open air."
"Sure! Sell you a ticket for that, if you want. Better let me check if it's raining or not." He closed a contact at his elbow and read the flowing letters that raced across a frosted screen. Gaal read with him.
The room clerk said, "Good weather. Come to think of it, I do believe it's the dry season now." He added, conversationally, "I don't bother with the outside myself. The last time I was in the open was three years ago. You see it once, you know and that's all there is to it. —Here's your ticket. Special elevator in the rear. It's marked 'To the Tower.' Just take it."
The elevator was of the new sort that ran by gravitic repulsion. Gaal entered and others flowed in behind him. The operator closed a contact. For a moment, Gaal felt suspended in space as gravity switched to zero, and then he had weight again in small measure as the elevator accelerated upward. Deceleration followed and his feet left the floor. He squawked against his will.
The operator called out, "Tuck your feet under the railing. Can't you read the sign?"
The others had done so. They were smiling at him as he madly and vainly tried to clamber back down the wall. Their shoes pressed upward against the chromium of the railings that stretched across the floor in parallels set two feet apart. He had noticed those railings on entering and had ignored them.
Then a hand reached out and pulled him down.
He gasped his thanks as the elevator came to a halt.
He stepped out upon an open terrace bathed in a white brilliance that hurt his eyes. The man, whose helping hand he had just now been the recipient of, was immediately behind him.
Reading Group Guide
Isaac Asimov’s Robot series and Foundation series comprise some of the greatest classics in their genre. They probe the questions of technology and destiny, war and politics that have captured readers’ imaginations for generations.
I, Robot, the first and most widely read book in Asimov’s Robot series, is a collection of nine stories that forever changed the world’s perception of artificial intelligence. Here are stories of sensitive robots, robots gone mad, mind-reading robots, prankster robots, and closeted robots that secretly dominate politics. Chronicling the robot’s development from primitive prototype to ultimate perfection, I, Robot blends scientific fact with science fiction in Asimov’s provocative style.
Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation tell the story of Hari Seldon, a brilliant visionary who synthesized history, psychology, and mathematical probability to shape a bold commandment for the future and steer humanity through a series of brutal eras. Following the collapse of a Galactic Empire, Hari gathered together the top scientists and scholars on a bleak planet at the very edge of the Galaxy in order to preserve the accumulated knowledge of mankind. He called his sanctuary the Foundation and designed it to withstand a dark age of ignorance, barbarism, and warfare that would last for the next thirty thousand years. But not even Hari could have predicted the intense barbarism lurking in space, or the birth of an extraordinary creature whose mutant intelligence would destroy all that Hari held dear.
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your reading of these four classics written by one of the most widely recognized fiction authors of our time.
Foundation and Empire
1. Do Asimov’s now-famous Three Laws of Robotics mirror humanity’s ethics code in any way? Whose orders are human beings required to obey? Do our definitions of “harm” ever lead to the same confounding dilemmas experienced in I, Robot?
2. Why was Gloria’s mother unable to accept Robbie as an excellent nursemaid? Was Robbie premonitory on Asimov’s part—a prediction that children in the twenty-first century might form intense emotional attachments to electronics?
3. Cutie (QT) questions his origins and finds it impossible to believe that a human created him. In what ways did Powell and Donovan reinforce this belief?
4. Does the case of Stephen Byerley indicate that robots might make better politicians? Would this only hold true if, as the novel envisions, nations dissolve into massive world regions?
5. What is the ultimate commodity produced by U.S. Robot & Mechanical Men, Inc.? Does our global workforce follow this model in any way? Were humor and compassion inevitable traits in the robots? Do these traits interfere with productivity in the world of I, Robot?
6. In the book’s closing lines, Dr. Susan Calvin tells the narrator, “You will see what comes next,” as robots stand between mankind and destruction. How did her career lead up to such a precarious conclusion?
7. I, Robot has been turned into a major motion picture starring Will Smith. How does the movie compare with your book-reading experience? What do you think of the adjustments made and liberties taken when converting this collection of stories to one seamless film adaptation?
8. Foundation opens with the perspective of Gaal Dornick, “a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.” What is the effect of opening the novel with Gaal’s observations? Why did Hari Seldon extend such an invitation to Gaal?
9. In the trial portrayed in chapter 6, the Commission’s Advocate repeatedly rejects Hari’s deductions regarding the future. What has made Hari a target for exile? Why are his projections—supported by seemingly irrefutable logic and mathematics—so easily dismissed by his accusers?
10. Part 3 of Foundation begins with an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica that reads, “Undoubtedly the most interesting aspect of the history of the four Kingdoms involves the strange society forced temporarily upon it during the administration of Salvor Hardin.” In what ways does Hardin distinguish himself from the other rulers described in the novel? What conditions fostered his rise to power?
11. The Foundation is intended in some ways as a kind of religious center. What are its doctrines? Can a religion of science fail?
12. Discuss the novel’s references to energy—in this case, nuclear power—in relation to political and economic supremacy. What other forces drive the novel’s hierarchies of dominance? How does the role of the Traders evolve in the novel’s closing chapters?
13. What were the root causes of the Foundation’s fall? Could its demise have been avoided, even after war had begun?
14. As Lord of the Universe, is Cleon II naïve or perceptive? In what ways do his sensibilities affect his fate?
15. What, ultimately, is the source of the Mule’s power to perform Conversions in Foundation and Empire? What role did psychology play in his own origins?
16. Do the Independent Trading Worlds accurately perceive their vulnerabilities? In contrast, what perpetuated Neotrantor’s survival?
17. Bayta’s final conversation with the Mule explains his moniker as well as his perceptions of how power is perpetuated. What does this dialogue indicate about gender roles in the realm of the Second Foundation, and about the possibility of democracy?
18. Discuss the spectrum of characters affected by the Mule in Second Foundation’s five opening interludes. In what ways do the Mule’s tactics vary?
19. In what ways does Bail Channis’s personality reflect a cultural shift from the previous Foundation novels?
20. Near the beginning of the fifteenth chapter, Arcadia is described as “dressed in borrowed clothes, standing on a borrowed planet in a borrowed situation of what seemed even to be a borrowed life.” In what ways is she both an unlikely and an ideal savior?
21. Scholarship such as the Encyclopedia project represented Hari’s belief in the power of learning (and even the power of the mind itself, in the form of neural microcurrents). To what extent is a civilization’s success measured by the survival of its knowledge?
22. The final chapter of Second Foundation offers a thoughtful coda to the novel. What is the “true” question to that chapter’s “answer that was true?”
23. If Hari Seldon’s equations were applied to Earth’s societies, what might the results be?
24. What connotations and root words were you able to derive from the character names and geographic locations featured in the series?
25. How does the series evolve as a whole? What overarching narrative is propelled by the events that occur within the individual books?
26. Isaac Asimov wrote these three books very early in his career, during the 1950s—an era marked by the Cold War, McCarthyism, and the early stages of the space race. How might the events of this period have shaped the Foundation storyline?
27. In what sense does the trilogy offer a cautionary tale for contemporary leaders in politics, science, and the humanities?