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by Isaac Asimov


A science fiction novel set in the Galactic Empire in the future; written as a series of connected stories in the 1940s and published as a novel in 1951.


A scholar predicts the demise of an empire that unites an entire galaxy, organizing a mass of scientists to ease the disruptions that will follow the collapse.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in Russia in 1920, Isaac Asimov moved to New York at the age of three. A self-proclaimed child prodigy, he began to write science fiction as a teenager and by 1950 had become a successful writer, published mostly by Doubleday. His repertoire by then included eight interconnected science fiction magazine stories. In 1951 he organized this 200,000-word beginning into a science fiction trilogy—which the Doubleday publishing company promptly rejected, as did the house of Little, Brown. An obscure press, Gnome, published the three books—Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). Not until approached by a Portuguese publisher for rights to these books did Doubleday acquire the trilogy and republish it in 1961. The series marked Asimov as one of the premier science fiction writers of this century. Eventually the stories of the Foundation were expanded to three additional volumes: Foundation’s Edge (1982), Foundation and Earth (1986), and Forward the Foundation (1993).

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Shifting powers

The stories in Foundation were written in the midst of the turmoil of World War II and the subsequent Cold War, or competition for world leadership between the Soviet Union and the United States. Isaac Asimov was born in the Soviet Union, a nation that at that point had just survived the crisis of the world’s first communist revolution and now faced a new crisis in government and economic changes instigated by Vladimir Lenin and his followers. The writer’s parents found the change, particularly the effects on Russian Jews like themselves, so unbearable that they moved to the United States and then even refused to speak Russian in their new home.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 had overthrown the czarist leadership and brought to power the first communist government under Lenin. When Lenin died in 1924, he was replaced by Josef Stalin, who proceeded to eliminate his opponents, radically change agriculture by collectivizing it (which led to the deaths of millions of peasants), and industrialize the economy. He also purged millions of dissenters and aggressively added land to the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, formed officially in 1922. Stalin’s goal was first to establish a dictatorship in the Soviet Union and then introduce communism throughout the world.

By the 1930s, another dictator, Adolf Hitler, with designs for world power, had used a few initial followers to become a local politician in


Hitler Stalin Tojo
BelgiumFinland (part)China (part)
DenmarkLithuania (part)Korea
FrancePoland (part)Manchuria
HungaryRomania (part)Philippines
Lithuania (part)  
Poland (part)  

the southern German city of Munich and then rose to control Germany. He had shrugged off the yoke of armaments agreements imposed on Germany after World War I, abandoning them altogether by 1935 in favor of building a German army of 500,000 soldiers equipped with new weapons capable of striking swiftly in quest for land. In 1939 Hitler used this force to attack Poland, after having coerced other European nations into accepting his occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

For a short time, Stalin and Hitler joined each other in dividing such eastern European lands as Poland, but then the German leader set his sights on Russian territory. This new crisis resulted in a Soviet policy shift. Stalin’s government aligned itself with two nations who were becoming more resistant to German takeovers—France and England. On the other side, Japan joined Hitler, who was contending for European control. Hideko Tojo, prime minister of Japan, likewise had plans to conquer other nations and entertained the idea of becoming emperor of all Asia.

The Cold War

The first human-controlled nuclear reaction took place in an assemblage of materials at a top-secret project at the University of Chicago in 1942. Immediately following this success, a massive effort was organized under the name of the Manhattan Project to apply atomic energy to wartime uses. Four years later, the atom bomb was ready for action; the United States used it to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, bringing an earlier end to the war than might have otherwise have been the case. The atomic bombs brought an end to traditional international armed conflict, but a new struggle rose in its place. The competition for world leadership known as the “Cold War” began between the United States and Soviet Union. The weapons used were primarily economic.

United States President Harry Truman, through a plan administered by General George Marshall, offered to supply the economically and emotionally devastated nations of Europe with financial aid, technical advice, and materials to rebuild their war-torn economies. Over a course of several years, an amount of money, goods, and services—estimated variously from $12 billion to $30 billion—was distributed to nations from Greece to France on the condition that the recipients would become trading partners with the United States. The Truman Doctrine (the policy of helping democratic nations repel potential communist takeovers) and Marshall Plan (the plan of U.S. aid to Western European nations for postwar recovery) succeeded in their goals. Western European nations soon prospered while becoming indebted to the United States and bound to it by trade.

The American strategy to maintain a friendly, democratic alliance in Western Europe was so successful that the trade agreements were later expanded to military assistance, and various nations banded together to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to defend Western Europe from Soviet expansion. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union also employed trade to consolidate its power. Neighbors of the Soviet Union were required to trade exclusively with U.S.S.R. and thus became economically dependent on its management. The weapons of war were used to enforce trade agreements on such nations as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Of course, the Soviet economic system was entirely different from the one promoted by the United States. Even before World War II, the Soviet Union and the Western nations had diverged onto separate economic paths. The Soviets had set out to control all the means of production for the good of all the people, an idea known as centralized planning. Ideally their goal was to progress from temporary control by a few leaders to government and economic control by the masses. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had not yet succeeded to a level beyond control by a few, and in fact, it never did before the demise of Soviet communism in 1991.

Nuclear energy

After World War II, many applications were found in the military for the new nuclear technology. Ships and submarines gained nuclear-powered engines. Missiles carrying nuclear warheads became the arsenal with which the major Cold War opponents—the Soviet Union and the United States—threatened each other. Eventually nuclear reactors supplied electric power to homes and industries, although the first of these reactors so used in the United States would not appear until 1958. In 1946 President Harry Truman removed control of atomic energy from the military to a civilian Atomic Energy Commission. It appeared that the uses for nuclear energy might be endless.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

An entire unnamed galaxy has been united into one massive Galactic Empire for many ages. Its ruler, grown complacent and now largely a figurehead, is protected by his ancient fleet of nuclear spaceships while the real power lies with a “commission of public safety.” Meanwhile, some of the more distant parts of the empire are doing little to support the emperor with wealth and thus are being neglected by the government. Controlling the knowledge of nucleonics (the study of atomic nuclei), the emperors over the years have concentrated government on a single planet, Trantor. Forty billion workers on this planet, sheltered mostly underground in metal buildings, gather taxes from the galaxy and enforce its rules. Into this situation steps the university professor Hari Seldon, creator of the new science of psychohistory, a man whom the government fears but cannot overtly eliminate because of possible political repercussions.

Psychohistory is a highly mathematical science through which Seldon can predict the future with a high degree of certainty. His science has indicated that the empire will fall within 500 years and be followed by 30,000 years of unbearable chaos as a new government builds. Nothing can be done to avoid the collapse, which will proceed in a series of unalterable crises. Seldon intends only to ease or reduce the period of chaos. He aims also to shorten the whole transitional era to just 1,000 years. With this in mind, Seldon has convinced the government to initiate a massive encyclopedia project, for which he has assembled 100,000 workers who will supposedly record all of human knowledge. It is to be a cover behind which he can proceed with his real plans. A good portion of these so-called “encyclopedists” are actually experts in nucleonics, a branch of science necessary for building a new world.

Through a series of machinations executed over a period of two years, Seldon has engineered his own exile, and that of his workers, to a deserted planet, Terminus, on the outskirts of the empire. Once there, Seldon’s group, otherwise known as the Foundation, turns away from the encyclopedia project, eventually revealed to have been a smokescreen from the beginning, concealing a far more complicated imperative for their actions. The group begins to develop a wide array of nuclear-powered tools, some with power plants that can be held in a walnut-sized lead jacket. The knowledge of the Seldon “Foundation” comes to be used by rulers of nearby planets on the fringe of the galaxy. The Foundation is able to create nuclear weapons as well as hundreds of nuclear tools for household uses—all constructed so that specialists from the Foundation can maintain and control them. The Foundation’s science takes on the aspect of a religion, initially because Seldon feels that this makes it easier for the “barbarians” who “looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery” (Foundation, p. 59) to accept its tenets.

Eventually those who can make, repair, and operate the nucleonic tools—the traders entrusted to deliver them from Terminus—dominate space politics. When the power of these traders falls into the hands of a few, the way is paved for a new empire operated by a single merchant prince, Hober Mallow.


As the plot reveals, Hober Mallow is a master salesman, a merchant prince who is quite familiar with the old but still existent Galactic Empire. The old Empire has constructed items on a large scale—giant nuclear power plants that are immobile and two-mile-long spacecraft that are fully armed and shielded from the weapons of rebels. Mallow and traders before him take the small Foundation in a new direction, searching for power through trade.


Personally Asimov has described himself as someone who never in all his life has been “tempted toward religion of any kind”; his philosophy of life “does not include any aspect of the supernatural’ for he believes only “what reason tells [him] is so” (Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir, p. 13).

The Foundation scientists are encouraged to test new ideas for nuclear use. The result is that nuclear power can soon be installed nearly anywhere. Mallow and his men thus build up a brisk trade with neighboring planets and extend their trade, though within a limited area initially, since they feel gradual expansion is wiser than attempting too much too quickly. Many of the tools and gadgets they sell are intentionally shortlived, and the nuclear power plants need continual servicing—with repairs and replacements available only through systems that Mallow controls. In fact, Mallow’s engineers have found ways to turn off important power sources at will. Thus trade provides the avenue by which Hober Mallow comes to rule the Empire.

The whole war [between the Terminus “Foundation” and the old empire] is a battle between those two systems; between the Empire and the Foundation; between the big and the little. To seize control of the world, they bribe with immense ships that can make war, but lack all economic significance. We [Mallow speaks for the Foundation], on the other hand, bribe with little things, useless in war but vital to prosperity and profits.

(Asimov, Foundation, p. 193)

This notion of conquering through trade works in the Foundation era. Hober Mallow can command loyalty and cooperation through his trade goods. Societies that become accustomed to his nuclear gadgets cannot tolerate periods when servicing and resupplying are neglected. Whole planets become dark and the machines lifeless as Mallow wishes. In history, trade has in fact been used as a tool of war and as a means of regulating distasteful crises. Mallow’s strategy parallels the real-life use of trade in lining up allies for the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.


According to Asimov, science fiction readers of the 1930s and 1940s favored magazine stories over novels. It was only during the post-World War II era—because of the nuclear bomb, German rocket science, and the electronic computer developments—that the genre became a respectable one. In 1949 Doubleday publishers decided to release a line of science fiction novels and bought the rights to Asimov’s first one, Pebble in the Sky.


Isaac Asimov sold his first science fiction story in 1938 to Amazing Science Fiction Magazine but shortly thereafter began writing letters and sending stories to Astounding Science Fiction Magazine (later ASF). Through the editor of ASF, John Campbell, he became acquainted with other science fiction writers who wrote for the magazine and kept up a lifetime acquaintanceship with such giants in the field as Robert Heinlein, Clifford Simak, and L. Sprague de Camp. In 1938 he joined a splinter group of a large science fiction fan club. The splinter group came to be known as the Futurians and included later science fiction writers and critics such as Frederik Pohl, Cyril Kornbluth, and Donald Wollheim. Asimov credits Pohl with encouraging and advising him in his science fiction writing and John Campbell with providing a guiding hand. Much of Asimov’s early science fiction writing was published in ASF with John Campbell’s guidance. The stories that made up the Foundation trilogy were first published by Campbell and it was at his insistence that they concluded in an open-ended fashion to provide opportunities for sequels.

Asimov and his literary analysts ascribe some of the organization of the whole Foundation trilogy to the epic Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. Foundation and the other books that followed seem organized, as Gibbon’s book was, on the notion that history is a spiral of events—one crisis after another. If so, and past history can cast some light on the present because of the near repetition of events, perhaps ancient and modern history will be reflected in the future. Foundation is organized in this way; the evolution of the encyclopedists and their successors follows unalterable paths through crisis after crisis in all-too-familiar sequences. Events occur and their consequences follow in a logical fashion, in much the same way that events progress in the real world.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Ideological conflict and military might

World War II had come to an end with the United States unveiling an awesome new weapon of mass destruction—the atom bomb. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki stirred international consciousness regarding the capacity for large-scale destruction now within human reach. The United States itself took the initiative to suggest a worldwide surveillance of the uses of atomic energy. The newly formed United Nations took the idea under submission, but action was thwarted by a Soviet veto. Both the United States and the Soviet Union continued their experimentation to develop nuclear weapons. In 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first test bomb, and by 1951, the year Foundation was published, the United States had detonated nine more atomic devices. In 1950 the United States announced that its scientists were developing a new and even more powerful bomb, the hydrogen bomb. With this weapon, the United States established nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union and other nations then developing nuclear technology, but it was a war of numbers and stockpiles rather than actual destruction.

A crisis of economics arose instead. The Soviet Union continued to behave in some ways much like Asimov’s old Galactic Empire. Control over production and distribution was held centrally and by force. The Soviets appeared unable to act quickly or efficiently. One example was its inability to work with its former allies in setting occupation policies in the conquered territories—Germany, Austria, and Korea. It seemed likely that a repeat of the same turmoil over redistricting Europe and Asia that occurred after World War I would ensue. In 1951, the frustrated United States made its own peace agreement with Japan and a year later with West Germany.

The communist scare

During the early 1920s, a new strain of communist politics appeared in many countries, including the U.S., buoyed in part by the success of the Soviet revolution. J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation had begun massive files on those suspected of harboring communist tendencies. In the late 1940s and 1950s a communist scare arose once more. In the aftermath of World War II and the paranoia of the Cold War, U.S. authorities deemed it wise to crack down on such “red” political affiliations. Members of Congress such as Senator Joseph McCarthy were quick to assign the communist label to their foes. In Asimov’s novel the enemies of the Galactic Empire are questioned and disposed of by death or exile. In real life, suspected communists were questioned, blacklisted, and banished from their jobs. The furor raged during the year Asimov’s novel was published. In 1951 two New York communists, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, were found guilty of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Such was the terror of the communist threat in the U.S.that two years later they became the first spies ever to be executed in peacetime.

The new crisis of technology

A bright new tool appeared that would revolutionize the world as the Foundation’s miniature nuclear gadgets had changed the old empire. In 1946, ENIAC, a gigantic and slow computer, was unveiled. Though primitive, ENIAC proved able to perform mathematical and engineering tasks much more quickly than the best human workers. By 1951 there were more than a thousand computers solving mathematical puzzles around the world. These would soon prove useful in managing the new peacetime applications of nuclear reactors to provide energy for homes and factories. The year of Foundation’s first publication, 1951, also saw the first successful generation of electricity from nuclear reactions. By the second publication of Foundation in 1961, civilian nuclear power plants were operating in New York State, Pennsylvania, and Cumberland, England.


The stories in the Foundation trilogy were first published between 1942 and 1948 in Astounding Science Fiction. Among the Asimov contributions to this magazine, they were second in acclaim only to his series of robot stories. Yet they were still initially rejected by publishing houses until Gnome Press showed interest. Asimov was delighted by its suggestion that it publish his series of related Foundation stories in three volumes, because the stories were the most ambitious ones he had ever done and “the best received by the readers” (Asimov, In Memory Yet Green, p. 618). A decade later, Dou-bleday decided to buy the copyright and re-publish the three Foundation books in 1961. Sales indicated that there was still reader interest. In 1982, thirty years after Foundation, Asimov revived the series with the publication of a fourth novel—Foundations Edge—and Double-day celebrated by reissuing the Foundation books once more. The novels received the 1982 Hugo Award as the Best All-Time Science Fiction Series. Asimov was hailed as the inventor of a new science fiction form—future history—and for his persistence in maintaining a logical progression in his stories.

For More Information

Asimov, Isaac. I. Asimov: A Memoir. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1994.

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951.

Asimov, Isaac. In Memory Yet Green. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. New York: Modern Library, 1932.

Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Marshall, Richard, ed. Great Events of the Twentieth Century. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest, 1977.

Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds. Isaac Asimov. New York: Taplinger, 1977.

Patrouch, Joseph F. The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

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foun·da·tion / founˈdāshən/ • n. 1. (often foundations) the lowest load-bearing part of a building, typically below ground level. ∎ fig. a body or ground on which other parts rest or are overlaid: he starts playing melody lines on the bass instead of laying the foundation down. ∎  (also foundation garment) a woman's supporting undergarment, such as a girdle. ∎  a cream or powder used as a base to even out facial skin tone before applying other cosmetics. 2. an underlying basis or principle for something: specific learning skills as a foundation for other subjects. ∎  justification or reason: distorted and misleading accusations with no foundation. 3. the action of establishing an institution or organization on a permanent basis, esp. with an endowment. ∎  an institution established with an endowment, for example a college or a body devoted to financing research or charity. DERIVATIVES: foun·da·tion·al / -shənl/ adj.

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1. That upon which a structure is erected, e.g. the solid ground beneath a building.

2. Lowest part of a building, below the ground level, providing a firm base for what is above, by which the load is transferred to the ground underneath. Very heavy buildings, such as high-rise, normally require deep foundations on piles, but for lighter structures, such as one- or two-storey houses, trenches into which concrete is poured to provide a base for the footings of the walls will usually suffice. Certain ground conditions might require a reinforced-concrete ‘raft’, which covers the site and widely distributes the load.

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A permanent fund established and maintained by contributions for charitable, educational, religious, research, or other benevolent purposes. An institution or association given to rendering financial aid to colleges, schools, hospitals, and charities and generally supported by gifts for such purposes.

The founding or building of a college or hospital. The incorporation or endowment of a college or hospital is the foundation, and those who endow it with land or other property are the founders.

Preliminary questions to a witness to establish admissibility of evidence. Laying a foundation is a prerequisite to the admission of evidence at trial. It is established by testimony that identifies the evidence sought to be admitted and connects it with the issue in question.

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foundation Lowest part of a structure, below ground surface and in contact with natural earth materials, which transmits load to the soil or rock. In a dam the foundation may include the valley floor and abutments.

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foundation. In organ parlance this word is used in 2 different senses. (1) foundation tone is that of all the more dignified stops (diapason, the more solid of the fl. stops etc.). (2) foundation stops are all the stops except the mutation and mixture stops.