Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

On the planet Terminus, a group of academics struggles to survive as the Galactic Empire crumbles. With no weapons, all they can rely on are the predictions of a dead genius named Hari Seldon. That's right - it's time to discuss Isaac Asimov's Foundation!

Welcome to Foundation Week, a Blogging the Hugos special event. In 1983, Isaac Asimov won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for Foundation's Edge, in which he revisited his groundbreaking Foundation mythos for the first time in over thirty years. Because the Foundation series is such classic, quintessential, and beloved science fiction — the original stories won their own unique Hugo for Best All-Time Series in 1966, and influenced artists from Douglas Adams to George Lucas — Josh Wimmer and Alasdair Wilkins will be discussing each of the seven books between today and Sunday. We begin with Foundation, published in 1951.

(Spoilers follow.)

JW: For starters: Asimov wrote the first Foundation story when he was 21. And eventually, of course, the original Foundation Trilogy would win a special Hugo for Best All-Time Series, beating out supposed shoo-in The Lord of the Rings. Man, when I was 21, I hadn't even been promoted from waiter to bartender at Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican Cafe.

Anyway, if anyone reading this hasn't read the Foundation books (at least the first three), I feel pretty strongly that they should immediately stop whatever they're doing and rectify that. But on the off chance that some our you reading this aren't going to do that, I'll quickly summarize: The Foundation series began as a set of short stories Asimov wrote under the guidance of legendary Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell. The stories were inspired by Asimov's reading of Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and their premise is so simple, it feels almost inevitable:

There is a Galactic Empire, consisting of countless planets spread across millions of light-years. The brilliant Hari Seldon has used a science of his own invention, called psychohistory, to determine that the Empire is near collapse. Psychohistory is a blend of crowd psychology and high-level math. An able psychohistorian can predict the long-term aggregate behavior of billions of people many, many years in the future. (However, it only works with large groups: Psychohistory is almost useless for predicting the behavior of an individual. Also, it's no good if the group being analyzed is aware it's being analyzed — because if it's aware, the group changes its behavior.)

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

Having determined that the Galactic Empire was falling, and that its fall could not be prevented, Hari Seldon did the next best thing: He set up two Foundations, one at either end of the galaxy, to preserve the accumulated knowledge of humanity and thereby shorten the 30,0000-year dark age that psychohistory predicted would follow the Empire's collapse, to a mere 1,000-year interregnum.

The books that came to be called the original Foundation Trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) were not written as novels; they're the collected Foundation stories Asimov wrote between 1941 and 1950. They deal chiefly with the "first" Foundation, based on the planet Terminus in the galaxy's periphery. The stories are connected chronologically, but are separated by decades, and for the most part each features a different set of characters. The basic idea is always the same, though, at least in the beginning: The relatively tiny Foundation has to survive against a more powerful enemy, and it can only do so by recognizing and working with the historical forces contributing to its situation. Again, at least at first, every Foundation story centers on what is called a Seldon crisis — a convergence of apparently insurmountable external and internal problems. The crises were all predicted by Hari Seldon — who appears near the end of each story in hologram form to confirm that the Foundation has navigated the latest one correctly — but the Foundation itself isn't given the benefit of his foreknowledge. After all, if they knew what he knew, their behavior wouldn't be psychohistorically predictable!

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

AW: I want to focus on "The Psychohistorians," the opening section of Foundation and, importantly, the only one that Asimov actually wrote especially for the 1951 novel, as all the rest had been published over the previous decade in Astounding. In fact, all the stories that make up the original trilogy had been previously written and published, and so "The Psychohistorians" has the strange dual role of serving both as an introduction to the series for pretty much anyone who has read Foundation in the last sixty years and as the unofficial capstone to the series, a sort of prequel epilogue that Asimov wrote to wrap up a saga he thought he had completed. Hell, even Hari Seldon's final line in this section seems like a comment on how Asimov felt about the whole thing: "I am finished."

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is to highlight how brilliantly Asimov uses this story to set up the rest of his saga. I can't imagine what it would have been like to pick up the May 1942 issue of Astounding that contained "Foundation," which ultimately became the second section of Foundation, and try to understand what Asimov was attempting to do. "Foundation" (or as it's known here, "The Encyclopedists") is a fantastic story, but it doesn't set up the universe of Foundation nearly as well as "The Psychohistorians" does. How could it? This is 28 pages of nonstop world-building, with courtroom drama thrown in. The ostensible protagonist, Gaal Dornick, is such a non-entity that he barely even counts as an audience identification figure, and Hari Seldon isn't so much a character as he is the living embodiment of psychohistory, an ethereal presence who's about as relatable as Gandalf. It wouldn't be until Prelude to Foundation nearly forty years later — another prequel epilogue, though on a far grander scale — that Seldon would become an actual character. The most memorable character might be Commissioner of Public Safety and unofficial emperor Linge Chen, and that's mostly because of his impressive silence.

But no, characters don't matter here. The main character here, really, is Trantor, the empty artifice at the heart of a creaking empire. Even a government goon stops creeping around long enough to wax lyrical about the planetwide city, and yet Asimov actually manages to convey the sense of inevitable decay long before Hari Seldon actually spells it out in his trial. It's a world of ugly gray metal that encases — and in turn, imprisons — the entire population, and squabbling aristocrats spend their time semi-legally persecuting elderly professors. But this section also impresses upon you the scale of this story, casually beginning with the mention that Seldon was born in the 11,988th year of the Galactic Empire, but that that dating system is now out of date. We're one step beyond the impossibly far future, right from the very beginning; our own time is just a forgotten myth, we're headed for 30,000 years of hell unless Seldon and his team act now. I realize other science-fiction epics have played around with timelines this big, but I'm not sure anyone else managed to be so impressively casual about how far in the future we've really gone.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

All of which is to say that "The Psychohistorians" is the perfect introduction to the Foundation series, a mini-masterpiece of world-building that helps you understand exactly what the Foundation is trying to do and, more importantly, why it all matters in slightly more than abstract terms. The picture of Trantor's decay is a convincing argument that this isn't just about saving humanity's future, which Linge Chen himself says is of no concern to men and women who will all be dead in fifty years' time. No, at the risk of getting a bit poetic/silly, the Foundation is out to save humanity's soul from its own boredom and pettiness. As "The Psychohistorians" makes really clear, it's going to be a lot of work.

JW: Yes, yes, and yes. The other thing I really like about "The Psychohistorians" is how its premise — country boy Dornick visits big city Trantor for the first time — so elegantly embodies the essential nature of the first Foundation stories. They're all studies in contrasts, too: little planet of advanced scientists versus medieval-esque warmongers, spiritual power versus temporal, free markets versus blind dogma. The placement of the Foundation itself, even: the tiny, isolated world of Terminus, with few resources, at the edge of the galaxy — as compared with massive, teeming, wealthy Trantor, right in the center of everything.

Insofar as scale is concerned, this did catch my eye this time through: "There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then..." I don't want to make too much of it, but I'd just love to ask Asimov why he went with million when 25,000 or, heck, even 2,500 would have served perfectly; I assume it was just in keeping with the Empire's hyperbolic aesthetic. The only reason I point it out is that it highlights the one major weakness in the Foundation stories: It becomes a little hard to believe, in places, that, with such a large population spread out over so many light-years, so much technology and history gets forgotten, and so much change happens so uniformly.

But that's a minor gripe, and obviously, it hasn't bothered too many readers too much. That it hasn't is a testament to Asimov's skill as a writer, which I'd like to talk about as we get into the next part of the book, "The Encyclopedists," which, as you note, was the very first Foundation story.

Every story in the original trilogy opens with an entry from the Encyclopedia Galactica, a compilation of all human knowledge. The first settlers of the Foundation, of course, believed their only responsibility was to work on the encyclopedia, and "The Encyclopedists," of course, centers on their discovery that that isn't the case at all.

I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that. From the outset, Asimov positions the encyclopedists as pedantic academics with no grip on the real world, and Terminus mayor Salvor Hardin as a lively, independent thinker who has a solid grasp on reality. Asimov would touch on a similar theme — irritation with intellectuals locked into a certain mind-set — years later, in The Gods Themselves. You know more about Asimov's biography than I do; was there anything in particular that might have engendered that? Or was it just the natural reaction of a very smart, imaginative thinker to the numerous not-as-smart, unimaginative thinkers he's surrounded by?

Anyway, as brief infodumps, the encyclopedia entries work superbly, and I love how subtly recursive they are: The encyclopedia is helping introduce us to...the people who are writing the encyclopedia.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

The story itself is that Anacreon, one of the Four Kingdoms just a few light-years from Terminus, is threatening the Foundation with annexation by military force. The Board of Trustees of the Encyclopedia Committee — for all intents and purposes the ruling power on Terminus — doesn't want to do anything about it, as its members believe the Empire will protect them. (There's a little hitch there, for me. If this were still just a short story, it wouldn't be there, but coming after "The Psychohistorians," you wonder just how Hari Seldon convinced these people to relocate to the BFE of space without telling them anything about what was going to happen.) Salvor Hardin, on the other hand, doesn't think the Empire will — or even can — defend Terminus, and wants the Foundation to make its own arrangements.

As Asimov himself points out in the introduction, this story — and those that follow — consist almost entirely of conversations. Nearly all the action takes place off-page, and the narrative is largely just people arguing or bullshitting! That the stories are such a success in spite of that, is one more reason their author deserves to be recognized for his skill as a producer of prose.

I mention this because I've seen Asimov dogged for his lack of notable style. It's a bit of a ridiculous criticism — I mean, the empirical evidence demonstrates he was an effective writer — but I guess I get what it's rooted in. He can be showy, but it's only ever in service of the story. For him, clarity is king. He achieves it by doing what so many writing instructors advise: using simple subject-verb constructions and active voice, active voice, active voice.

From the first section of "The Encyclopedists":

Pirenne stirred uneasily, as the muted buzzer upon his desk muttered peevishly. He had almost forgotten the appointment. He shoved the door release and out of an abstracted corner of one eye saw the door open and the broad figure of Salvor Hardin enter. Pirenne did not look up.

Hardin smiled to himself. He was in a hurry, but he knew better than to take offense at Pirenne's cavalier treatment of anything or anyone that disturbed him at his work. He buried himself in the chair on the other side of the desk and waited.

Pirenne's stylus made the faintest scraping sound as it raced across the paper. Otherwise, neither motion nor sound. And then Hardin withdrew a two-credit coin from his vest pocket. He flipped it and its stainless steel surface caught flitters of light as it tumbled through the air. He caught it and flipped it again, watching the flashing reflections lazily.

None of this is poetry, but it zooms right up through your eyes and into your brain totally satisfactorily. There's a smooth, effortless rhythm, and a sense that while finding the right word is important, the language itself shouldn't attract more attention than what it's conveying.

One more note about language to come, but I'll get to it later.

AW: The first few Foundation stories — all the ones in Foundation and the opening section of Foundation and Empire — have to wrestle with a basic problem: Just what is a Foundation story? The concept of psychohistory is, I would argue, the greatest idea Asimov ever came up with, surpassing even the Three Laws of Robotics, and I'd be perfectly willing to argue that it's the most fascinating notion in the entire history of science fiction. It's an invented science that makes great intuitive sense, comments on the nature of humanity, and demands a scope almost impossibly epic, as we've already discussed. But it does have one big problem — from a narrative perspective, psychohistory just sorta blows.

After all, there's no real threat in a psychohistory story — all the events and characters are being stage-managed by the dead hand of Hari Seldon, as some of the characters later describe it. We know the Foundation will prevail and that the seemingly hopeless situation is, in fact, impossible to lose. That really should kill any excitement right from the start, and that's a problem Asimov acknowledged with mounting desperation as he wrote more and more stories, which he finally managed to solve in inspired fashion with the introduction of the Mule. But we'll get to that later, because "The Encyclopedists" reveals Asimov had a perfectly workable solution all along.

The whole story is a highly unorthodox puzzle story, with several unusual mysteries for both Salvor Hardin and us to solve. Hardin has to use what little psychological training he has to figure out the nature of the Seldon plan. Of course, it's not just his psychology background — Hardin is a staggeringly brilliant politician, and Asimov slipped in a bit of retroactive foreshadowing into "The Psychohistorians" when Hari Seldon observes that "politicians by the very nature of their work must have an instinctive feeling for the truths of psychohistory." So one mystery is how to solve the crisis, but there's also the question of what the crisis actually is — a more abstract point that Hardin makes during one of the board meetings, although I'm not sure Asimov does as much with this idea — and, on a narrative level, why the last story ended with such a dreadful anticlimax.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

By that I mean that I can't imagine any first-time reader isn't disappointed with what Hari Seldon proposes at the end of "The Psychohistorians." I mean, an encyclopedia is supposed to save the galaxy? That's just silly and boring, which is about as deadly a combination as it gets. (I suspect the rise of Wikipedia makes this ostensible plot point now seem even more ludicrous than it was originally.) And yet here we are in the next story, wasting our time with useless twits like Lewis Pirenne and the rest of the board, and suddenly we've got every reason to doubt that Hari Seldon actually knew what he was talking about. Again, I can't quite wrap my mind around what someone who read these stories in the original magazines would have made of "The Encyclopedists," but I know I first read it desperately waiting for the other shoe to drop, hoping that the seemingly tedious pieces of this story would snap together into something mind-blowing. And, ooh boy, does it ever do that, but it sure was a ballsy writing strategy on Asimov's part to make so much of the story so deliberately boring. Although, to be fair, the imperial emissary Lord Dorwin is pretty hilarious.

Of course, the puzzle structure of both this story and the next section, "The Mayors," is helped immeasurably by the presence of that magnificent bastard Salvor Hardin. He's on the short list for Asimov's best characters, and he's probably my favorite of the bunch. It's tricky to pull off a character who is so consciously meant to be larger-than-life — the constant cigar-chomping, the endless epigramming, the ceaseless seat-tilting — but I think Asimov nails it with Hardin. It's fascinating watching Hardin try to joust not just with his enemies on Terminus and in the Four Kingdoms, but with Hari Seldon himself, as he tries to outmaneuver the father of psychohistory and save Terminus from two crises. I don't know if a Foundation movie is ever going to materialize, and frankly I don't really care, but Hardin is clearly the character any such film needs to be built around.

Now, if I can respond to a couple of your points — I don't know whether there are any specific incidents that drove Asimov to be so frustrated with unimaginative academics, although I think it was just a natural byproduct of his creativity and temperament. Still, I'm guessing anyone who completes a Ph.D. in biochemistry while in possession of Asimov's imagination would be provided with plenty of opportunities for frustration. And on the 25 million planets point — I think it's worth keeping in mind that we actually learn almost nothing about the worlds beyond Terminus and the Four Kingdoms in Foundation, and that we mostly have to rely on hearsay and rumor, just like the Foundationers. As Asimov does actually point out, the slip back into barbarism is a gradual one and is hardly recognized as it occurs, so it's probably spread out over centuries. Besides, based on what little we do see of the rest of the galaxy in later Foundation stories (not to mention his Empire novels like The Currents of Space), a lot of the Empire was already fairly primitive, and didn't need much of an impetus to fall completely over the cliff.

JW: That's an interesting point about much of the Empire being primitive already. I should probably read the Empire books.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

Also interesting that you mention the Laws of Robotics, because I was thinking about how similar the Foundation stories are to the robot stories: In both, you have some fundamental rules, immutable as the laws of nature — but, gosh, they don't seem to be working! Did someone get something wrong? Is all in peril? Or — ah, no, we just have to wait for the subtle but still totally consistent workout. I mean, you're right, of course, that there's no real threat in an early Foundation story, but that's more or less true of the stories in I, Robot, too; even though there are seeming threats, the tone indicates pretty early that a solution is going to be found. (Relatedly, it surprised me the first time I picked up an Elijah Baley novel to realize it was a murder mystery, but it shouldn't have — the Foundation and other robot stories are all mysteries, after a fashion.) The fun lies in finding out how the puzzle gets solved. And, as you note, in our time with Lord Dorwin.

What is it about Salvor Hardin that makes him so charming? 'Cause you're absolutely right — he's probably my favorite, too (or possibly a close second behind R. Daneel Olivaw). And there is just not very much to him. We learn almost nothing about his history, his life outside the mayoralty — anything. But I would lay good money we're not the only readers who feel a notable warmth for him. I guess it's hard not to like someone who comes up with a line like "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent" — and then demonstrates as much over and over again.

I also have to admire how relaxed he is about the young Turks trying to knock him out of office in "The Mayors." I honestly believe Hardin would give up his seat in that story, if he thought it was the right path for the Foundation. (And I'll see your "I don't really care" if they make a Foundation movie and raise it to "I actively hope they don't," because they'd just get Hardin wrong.)

What else to say specifically about "The Mayors"? Or about the next part, "The Traders"? I suppose what has resonated in large part with readers throughout the years is how these stories illuminate the workings of our own planet's history. Science fiction gets lauded as a way of showing us how things are by purporting to show us how they might be — but in this case, we get a broad but not inaccurate view of how things were. My social studies teachers could lecture about theocracies and schisms all day, but in a handful of pages, Asimov gave me a much more memorable appreciation for how a powerful priestly caste could interfere with an ambitious ruler's plans.

And just — the sheer jujitsu of how the Foundation operates: In both "The Mayors" and "The Traders," Hardin and Limmar Ponyets, respectively, let the bad guys accumulate all this power, and then ever so deftly turn it back against them. I guess I think of these two sections as "classic" Foundation, because I think in this book's final part, "The Merchant Princes," things begin to change just a tad. That's when our protagonists start having to take a slightly more active role in dealing with the forces arrayed against them.

AW: I'll tell you what makes Salvor Hardin so charming — it's that just when it looks like he's been utterly defeated, he (if I may use modern internet parlance) unleashes a tidal wave of simply unimaginable ownage. He shuts off an entire planet, takes down the entire command structure of the Anacreon military, humiliates King Lepold in front of his people by switching off his godly powers, gets his enemy's priggish son bloodied and beaten by a bunch of scared soldiers, reduces the ridiculously named Prince Wienis to a whimpering mess, all without lifting a finger — and then, for good measure, drives the evil Wienis to suicide with nothing but a weird fable and a force field. That's some hardcore shit right there, and no mistake. Violence may be the last refuge of the incompetent, but the competent are clearly capable of so much worse. Hardin doesn't really need a backstory — or, indeed, any indications he has a life outside being mayor — when his schemes are that ingenious. It's just fun to be in the presence of a mind so powerful.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

Now, after the awesomeness of "The Mayors," I've got to admit "The Traders" is something of a letdown. Limmar Ponyets is probably the least interesting of all the Foundation protagonists, and there's no sense that we're even in the midst of a Seldon crisis. Worse, a lot of the story feels like a rehash of "The Mayors," only with far less interesting stakes. In "The Mayors," Salvor Hardin craftily manipulates the beliefs of others to save the Foundation from total destruction, while here Ponyets craftily manipulates the beliefs of others to...well, to meet his trading quota. Sure, I'm being less than charitable here, as Ponyets makes it quite clear that he's set up his profit-hunting to benefit the Foundation as well, but still...it's another story that ostensibly seems a bit minor and tedious, and I was waiting around for that other shoe to drop. Only this time, the other shoe just wasn't all that interesting, and the big reveal — that Ponyets has blackmailed an ambitious politician into accept his atomic-powered hardware by secretly recording an act of "sacrilege" — seems a bit lame compared with the operatic scope of Hardin's secret plan in "The Mayors." It also doesn't help that Ponyets is almost as much of a blank slate as Salvor Hardin, except just sort of bland and boring.

That said, while I do think "The Traders" is the clear weak link of Foundation (and probably of all the stories that constitute the original trilogy), it does further illuminate some of the themes Asimov played around with in "The Mayors." In particular, it offers another look at how religious devotion has offered the common people some solace as their galaxy crumbles around them, and how eager their leaders are to take advantage of this piety. Religion is Salvor Hardin's unwitting ally in "The Mayors" and, as we find out at the last possible moment, so to is it for Limmar Ponyets in "The Traders," although in that story religion seems far more like a distraction and excuse for barbarism.

I suppose the temptation here is to say that Asimov is mocking religion, or that these stories are meant to be anti-religion, though I don't think that's the case. The most strident atheist in all these stories is arguably Prince Wienis, and he's easily the most unpleasant of all the characters. Salvor Hardin and high priest Verisof obviously don't believe in the system they've set up, but they don't seem to think any less of the believers or wish them any harm — indeed, they recognize religion as the best way of doing some good at a time when science has become tainted with the Empire's failure. It's a nuanced take on religion, and as much as it seems farcical — some of the characters say as much — it's actually a brilliant way of knitting together science and religion into a sort of peaceful coexistence. "The Traders" takes a dimmer view of religion, with the people of Askone presented as a bloodthirsty mob driven by their insane hatred of sacrilege, but the Grand Master is revealed to be an essentially pragmatic, decent character who is committed to upholding the values of his people, even if he has to send everybody in the galaxy to his gas chambers. But hey, he'd happily include himself in that number, as long as it's in the name of stopping sacrilege.
So that just leaves us with "The Merchant Princes." What say you, sir?

JW: Ah, "The Merchant Princes." I have long felt a strange affection for its protagonist, Hober Mallow. Not sure why — I think it's just that his name is so pleasant. He is certainly a bastard of a different brand from Hardin, what with his willingness — readiness, even — to kill his ship's crew if they don't obey him. One does not get the sense Mallow makes empty threats.

This section isn't bad. And at least it feels absolutely necessary, particularly as a bridge to the stories in Foundation and Empire. Like I mentioned earlier, I think of the first three stories as "classic" Foundation; in them, we get a handle on how Seldon's plan operates and how the Foundation solves problems, and the Foundation gets its immediate neighborhood locked down. With Mallow, we're venturing into unknown territory — closer to the galactic center — and we're getting a better understanding of what "The Traders" hinted at: The success of the Foundation depends not on finding some tactic and sticking with it indefinitely, but on constant adaptation. Jorane Sutt and the other Foundation leaders are so committed to ruling by religion, though, that they refuse to even countenance the notion that another method might be called for.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

That sort of intransigence on the part of incumbent officials isn't new (and wasn't when the story was written, either), but one of Asimov's broader points is interesting: You can effectively conquer another society by selling it merchandise, getting it hooked on your products. That was an old idea, too, I'm sure — but still, the Encyclopedia Galactica claims the term "cultural imperialism" didn't even originate until years after this story was written.

The reason I say this section "isn't bad" is simply that the plot itself has become a bit tired. Inflexible Foundation leaders? Check. Wily creative thinker as the hero who saves them (and thereby infuriates them)? Check. Stupid foreign nobleman? Check. The accoutrement — the encounter with the missionary, the trip to Siwenna to meet Onum Barr, the trial against Mallow — these are fine, but don't leave me breathless. (The handy little trick Mallow uses in the trial, especially — that almost feels like cheating, more so even than Ponyets's recorder.) Still, I'd reiterate that all of this is necessary, or at least worthwhile, from a storytelling perspective: Whether he realized he was doing it or not, Asimov is giving us a slightly advanced run-through of the Foundation basics, while simultaneously preparing us for the overall story to get bigger.

One last thing from me, and then you can wrap this up. I mentioned having another note about the language. And maybe I'm reading too much into things (or wanting to see something where it's not), but compare this passage from Chapter 4 of "The Merchant Princes":

Korell is that frequent phenomenon in history: the republic whose ruler has every attribute of the absolute monarch but the name. It therefore enjoyed the usual despotism unrestrained even by those two moderating influences in the legitimate monarchs: regal "honor" and court etiquette.

...with this one from Chapter 6 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

The ascent to greatness, however steep and dangerous, may entertain an active spirit with the consciousness and exercise of its own powers: but the possession of a throne could never yet afford a lasting satisfaction to an ambitious mind. This melancholy trust was felt and acknowledged by Severus.

The actual content of the words is irrelevant. Instead, check the rhythm and the diction. Decline and Fall is a daunting book because of its length, but Edward Gibbon was actually a marvelous stylist, clear and easy to read, with a point of view that is definitely present but that never obscures his message. There's pomp appropriate to the subject, but not pompousness, and he tempers that by tossing in wry commentary throughout. Anyway, pick up a copy and look for yourself — but personally, I think it's evident that Asimov was emulating Gibbon's style, whether intentionally or simply reflexively.

That's all I got. Bring 'er home, man!

AW: I'm tempted to agree with you that "The Merchant Princes" isn't all that amazing. But I do think it's got a few factors that work nicely in its favor. Hober Mallow is one of the strangest characters Asimov ever created, a heartless bastard who's described physically more like a particularly intelligent shaved bear than a normal human. I'm not sure Asimov ever wasted a single physically descriptive word on Salvor Hardin (except to distinguish the young Hardin from the old), but Mallow sounds like he's about eight feet tall and 300 pounds of pure muscle. Earlier I used "larger-than-life" to describe Salvor Hardin, but that term might actually be a far better fit for Hober Mallow.

Indeed, I think he's a good fit for the current mood of space-based science fiction — his ruthlessness in command would be a good match for Admiral Adama's approach on Battlestar Galactica, and his conduct on the Far Star reminded me of the initial, darker characterization of Malcolm Reynolds on Firefly. I doubt Mallow has even much of an indirect influence on these characters (although George Lucas is known to have cribbed from Foundation in constructing the Star Wars universe, so I wouldn't be totally shocked if Han Solo is a collateral descendant), but he's a character who arguably works even better now than he might have done against some of the more gallant and dashing space captains of the 1940s and 1950s. The only problem is that Asimov doesn't really give him any weaknesses to go against his strengths — sure, he's a complete bastard, but he's justified in his conduct at every turn.

Isaac Asimov's Foundation: The little idea that became science fiction's biggest series

Anyway, it's also interesting to see an outsider — Mallow is from Smyrno, one of the four barbarian kingdoms, and not a native Foundationer — take on the protagonist role, because it crystallizes a growing concern you get from the preceding stories: Is the new empire that the Foundation is creating any better than the one that came before? They're better scientists, yes, but they certainly don't appear to be better people, and the scheming Terminus politico Jorane Sutt seems just as bad as previous corrupt officials like Linge Chen, Lord Dorwin, Prince Wienis, or Pherl. "The Merchant Princes" presents a Terminus that seems dangerously close to the Trantor we glimpsed in "The Psychohistorians." Its scientific accomplishments speak for themselves, but it's still a petty little world full of petty little people plotting petty little rebellions.

In fact, Jorane Sutt's scheme is subtly worse than anything we've seen before — he wants to turn the science-based clergy against the Foundation, leading the combined might of the Four Kingdoms against all his enemies on Terminus, and then in turn he will start conquering the rest of the galaxy. Sutt, then, isn't just trying to defeat the Foundation, but he's actually trying to pervert the Seldon Plan to his own ends. I doubt he could have succeeded even if Mallow hadn't been around to stop him, but it speaks to the festering corruption of the Foundation and how these stories, at their heart, are not about heroes and villains. These stories really are just about the push and pull of history, and "heroes" like Salvor Hardin and Hober Mallow are just around for the sake of narrative convenience. The Foundation may be destined to win, but I'm not sure Asimov himself is convinced that's a good thing. Indeed, that's kind of the whole point of Foundation's Edge, but I'm getting way ahead of myself.

Beyond that mounting ambiguity about the Foundation — something Asimov takes much further and to far greater effect in Foundation and Empire — there are a few other touches I really like about "Merchant Princes." Of all the early stories, this one feels the most like a space opera, with lots of different worlds and some nice little moments that drive home the vastness of a galactic civilization. It's a tiny moment and easily missed, but Asimov's quiet description of Mallow's lifeboat leaving the Far Star really gets at the silence of space, and it's amazing to think the entire Foundation is 150 years behind on galactic history. It's pretty cool to think that the mere presence of the Empire, which was a fact of life back in "The Psychohistorians" and "The Encyclopedists," has now become a shocking twist. And I love the closing note about "the least-fought war in galactic history," as it feels very much like Asimov taking a witty shot at other science fiction sagas that devolve into endless battle and war scenes.

Anyway, Asimov wrote the preceding story "The Traders" to bridge the gap between "The Mayors" and "The Merchant Princes," and I'm not entirely sure I buy the wisdom of his decision. As you say, the stories do start bleeding into each other a bit, and there's definitely some diminishing returns as you see the same structure over and over again. I think that, from a narrative perspective, going straight from Salvor Hardin to Hober Mallow might have worked better, with all the Terminus-set stories focused on actual Seldon crises. But I also think Hober Mallow has a pretty good rebuke to that argument, which he offers to Jaim Twer while discussing their situation on Korell:

"You've got to have the in-betweens, or you won't understand, Twer."

That's what the book Foundation is really all about — examining the in-betweens of history in order to reveal its driving forces. Strictly as a reading experience, "The Traders" and "The Merchant Princes" might seem less interesting than their fresher predecessors, but without all five stories together there's not much chance of understanding just what Asimov is trying to do with his little saga. On that score of sketching out the first 150 years of the Foundation's history and what psychohistory really means for Terminus and the galaxy at large, this book is an unqualified triumph. And hell, the stories are pretty good too...and I'd argue they only get better from here on out. And with that, I'd say it's time for a little Foundation and Empire.

"Blogging the Hugos" is a series examining the Hugo Award–winning novels in (more or less) chronological order. Coming tomorrow: Foundation and Empire, by Isaac Asimov, from 1952. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. Alasdair Wilkins lives in Los Angeles and is a reporter for io9.