Paul Krugman's introduction to the Folio Society's beautiful edition of the Foundation trilogy

The Folio Society has released a beautiful, illustrated slipcased edition of Asimov's Foundation trilogy, illustrated by Alex Wells, with a special introduction by Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman. The introduction (PDF) is a great and insightful piece into one of the ways that science fiction inspires and shapes the lives of its readers.

Yet despite their lack of conventional cliffhangers and, for the most part, either heroes or villains, the ‘Foundation’ novels are deeply thrilling—suspenseful, engrossing, and, if I may say, bracingly cynical. For the absence of conventional cliffhangers doesn’t mean an absence of unconventional cliffhangers.

In the first book and a half there are a series of moments in which the fate of the galaxy seems to hang in the balance, as the Foundation faces the apparent threat of extinction at the hands of barbarian kings, regional warlords, and eventually the decaying but still powerful empire itself. Each of these crises is met by the men of the hour, whose bravery and cunning seem to offer the only hope. Each time, the Foundation triumphs. But here’s the trick: after the fact, it becomes clear that bravery and cunning had nothing to do with it, because the Foundation was fated to win thanks to the laws of psychohistory. Each time, just to drive the point home, the image of Hari Seldon, recorded centuries before, appears in the Time Vault to explain to everyone what just happened. The barbarians were never going to prevail, because the Foundation’s superior technology, packaged as religion, gave it the ability to play them off against each other. The warlord’s weapons were no match for the Foundation’s economic clout. And so on.

This unique plot structure creates an ironic resonance between the ‘Foundation’ novels and a seemingly unrelated genre, what I’d call prophetic fantasy. These are novels— Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ cycle comes to mind—in which the protagonists have a mystical destiny, foreshadowed in visions and ancient writings, and the unfolding of the plot tells of their march toward that destiny. Actually, I’m a sucker for that kind of fiction, which makes for great escapism precisely because real life is nothing like that. The first half of the ‘Foundation’ series manages, however, to have the structure of prophecy and destiny without the mysticism; it’s all about the laws of psychohistory, you see, and Hari Seldon’s prescience comes from his mathematics.


  1. For those who aren’t familiar with Dr. Krugman, he has said that he was a huge fan of the Foundation trilogy when he was young, and went into economics because it was the closest thing he could find to ‘psychohistory’. 

  2. But… The later Foundation books… It’s not a trilogy, hasn’t been since the 80’s… Retconning the history of SF… No!

    Although in fairness, that’s exactly what the books added to the series after Azimov’s death have done.

  3. Can I mention the theory that Al Qaida comes from the title and substance of these books without invoking the wrath of The Moderator?

    I read everything Asimov wrote when I was in High School. In college it was Delaney.
    Could it be Asimov is the rational alternative to Rand?

  4. No, the Foundation is a trilogy — just 3 books.  Just like Star Wars — only 3 movies were ever made, and the world has been a happy place ever since!

    1. Even the trilogy part of the Foundation books isn’t a trilogy; it’s a collection of short stories and novellas presented as three tomes for publishing purposes.

      1. True, but it fit neatly into three books of equal length.

        Man, when the Mule’s ships are descending on Terminus and the Hari Seldon hologram appears, then starts talking about mundane problems of commerce and trade, I was like “HOLY SHIT…!”

        Then Second Foundation ends on a truly sublime note.  Wow.

  5. It’s the Foundation TRILOGY because these three books, together, form a whole.  It doesn’t matter that Asimov later added 4 more books, and that others added 3 more officially-sanctioned books.

    For the record, I LIKED the 80’s Foundation novels.  They don’t have the same feel as the older stories, but then again, some elements of the original trilogy were already dated by the time Foundation’s Edge came out.  Doesn’t diminish the power that this trilogy can have on a young mind (like it did on mine in the early 90’s, when I read it.)

    Even though I already own paperback versions of the books in this trilogy, I just put in my order for this set.  Asimov is the single biggest influence on my own writing (both his fiction and his non-fiction led me to my current job as a technical writer — which is what I do when I don’t write fiction.)

    If a publisher somewhere collected all of Asimov’s fiction into a series of serious-looking, matching leather-bound volumes (with each novel as its own book — or possibly grouping some of the early novels, such as this trilogy — into bigger volumes — and collecting ALL his short fiction into a series of either themed or chronological volumes) I would start saving up to buy it (or I would get a loan so I could place my order immediately.)  I would display these books in my library in the same way that lawyers display their law books.

    1. It’s the Foundation TRILOGY because these three books, together, form a whole.


      Foundation was originally a series of eight short stories published in Astounding Magazine between May 1942 and January 1950 …. The first four stories were collected, along with a new story taking place before the others, in a single volume published by Gnome Press in 1951 as Foundation. The remainder of the stories were published in pairs by Gnome as Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953), resulting in the “Foundation Trilogy”, as the series was known for decades.

      1. Yes, it’s a series of novellas, but with a clear continuity to them. So, the emphasis on “trilogy” is misplaced, but the stories do, together, form a whole. The related novels written decades later are clearly a distinct set from the earlier stories.

    2. I liked both the trilogy and the later books.

      The later books were distinctly different in style, tone, and thematics. I remember reading an essay in college discussing how word processing influenced the structure of novels, by making it relatively easy to write different sections of a story almost simultaneously, and so to write how different characters would perceive the same event. The long gulf in time between the trilogy and Asimov’s later books made for a fairly vivid demonstration of changes in writing technique.

      In Asimov’s later books, he seemed to be making a deliberate effort to pull together all the threads of his fiction — most obviously, he tied together the robot stories with the Foundation saga, but he would pull in various minor works as well. And it was interested how the Gaians, generally portrayed in a very positive light, were a revision of a concept I’d read in an Asimov short story, only in that short story, it was nightmarish, not idealized.

      1. I poured a little out of my 40 the other day thinking about my copy of Foundation and Earth that I loaned out years ago.  I leave a little spot on my shelf in the hope that one day it’ll come home.

        And I always thought Gaia was pretty creepy, I can see how it could easily be flipped.

        1. Gaia and Fallom = creepier together.

          I always pictured Willem Dafoe as Bander.  Jason Robards as Hari Seldon.
          Bliss, probably Darryl Hannah in her heyday, with that menacing tinge of Pris (damn, never noticed how similar the names are) in Blade Runner.  After those three, I can’t put a face on any other character… Wait!  Crispin Glover as the Mule!

      2. In Asimov’s later books, he seemed to be making a deliberate effort to pull together all the threads of his fiction

        Yeah, why DO so many SF/Fantasy writers tend to do that once they’ve amassed a number of tomes? Jules Verne did it, Heinlein bent over backwards to do it, King is doing it  in such a contrived fashion that you suspect it to be self-parody.If it’s about their “legacies” somehow – wouldn’t it be much more flattering to be able to say “That guy could really take the reader to different places every time”?

  6. Asimov sometimes would stick in a zinger. Seeking the backing of the empire an ambassador visits. Hopes are raised. But on analysis of his every utterance it is determined he totally equivocated. 

    1. But on analysis of his every utterance it is determined he totally equivocated.

      For the lay-reader:
      Upon analysis, every sentence the ambassador spoke in the course of several days was cancelled by another, so he ended up saying a grand total of zilch.  Didn’t really lie, it just took him thousands of words to say absolutely nothing, a true master in the art of politics.  But at least it was nice of the Galactic Empire to pay the Foundation a courtesy visit.

  7. The Foundation Trilogy (and Frank Herbert’s in-some-ways-similar Dune) were among the first science fiction I ever read. I later learned that more literary science fiction fans look down on the works for reasons alluded to in the review above, but they remain special to me.

  8. I remember thinking that Asimov’s description of “psychohistory” seemed like he was thinking of Marxism and was trying to visualize a unification of the social sciences on liberal lines.

  9. I first fell in love with the writings of Ray Bradbury (and still enjoy them), but Isaac Asimov was the first writer whose novels I could not read fast enough! I love the Foundation trilogy, but my favorite novels are “I, Robot” and “Foundation and Earth”.

  10. Paul Krugman was in line behind me at a cafe yesterday in NYC, and I was as excited as a teenaged girl seeing The Beatles in the 1960s.

  11. If anyone feels like nerding out even more, Bad Ass Digest found the old BBC radio broadcast of the Foundation series and posted it online. It’s got all the boopy synths and human created sound effects as a backdrop to what seems like an impossible-to-follow cast of characters. Many of the men sound the same, so it’s hard to distinguish who is actually talking. But if you’re a big fan and familiar, this might be a great way to spend a rainy afternoon.

  12. He mentions an Ayn Rand polemic in the second sentence; it’s like being shown a microwave meal for one for a second before being fed a decent meal. You’ve got something good to look forwards to, but you didn’t need to be reminded about the horrific alternatives.

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