The series is set in a far-flung future where mankind has figured out space travel and colonized the galaxy. With nuclear power, hyperspatial travel and an abundance of starships, travelling from star to star is easy. At the time of the series, humanity has been travelling the stars for more than twenty thousand years, all the galaxy is part of the Empire, a single government with a capital planet called Trantor, with one man at the very top, the Emperor. But there’s a problem, the Empire is breaking down. Trade is slowing down, advancements have all but stopped, repairs are left undone. For some reason people just don’t care anymore, and they’re letting the whole system grind to a halt. When that happens, the Emperor won’t be able to keep control and the entire galaxy will fall into barbarism. Unless someone stops it.
Enter into this one man, Hari Seldon. A mathematician from a planet most people have never heard of, who arrives on Trantor to attend a conference and present a paper on a new science he calls psychohistory. This new science has the strange purpose of being able to mathematically predict the future based on the behaviour of society as a whole. But although Seldon has proved it is theoretically possible, he believes it to be practically impossible. Despite this, Seldon is recruited to develop and use this science to prevent the decay of the Empire by a man called Chetter Hummin, and from there Seldon’s life is one long adventure as he finds out how to make psychohistory work, forms a plan to save the galaxy and then puts into action.
But all this is just the first two books of the series, making a duology that tells the first story, that of Hari Seldon’s life. Over the course of the rest of the books a full five hundred years will pass. But not all at the same pace. The curious thing about Foundation is that it’s not one long story, but three distinctly different stories. While Seldon couldn’t prevent the decay of the Empire, he could figure out what would happen next, a period of barbarism that would last thirty thousand years. Seldon planned to shorten the period of barbarism to only one thousand years by putting in place the Foundation, a colony of physical scientists at the edge of the galaxy that would in time form the leadership of a Second Empire. The story of the Foundation makes up the middle three books in the series. These tales are split into several short stories within the three books, each one widely different and concerning different people, as they all happen decades apart when the people of the previous story have died of old age. The Foundation goes through several trials in their time, sometimes failing, but always endeavouring to expand their control and inch their way towards the Second Empire.
The last two books in the series are another duology. They are the adventures of Golan Trevize, a Foundation politician who is given a secret mission to find the Second Foundation, the secret manipulators that keep the Seldon Plan on track. His cover for his mission a companion. Accompanying him is Dr Janov Pelorat, a historian that wants to find Earth, the origin planet of the human species, lost long ago and almost completely forgotten. In buddy movie fashion the two set out on their quest, but while Trevize hunts the Second Foundation, the Second Foundation also hunts him. A representative of the Second Foundation named Stor Gendibal believes that the Seldon Plan is not just working, but working too well, that some other force is controlling events that is more powerful than the Second Foundation. So he follows Trevize, believing he will be led to this unknown force. When the two finally meet, it’s in a completely unexpected situation that catapults Trevize down a new path. He gives up looking for the Second Foundation and joins Pelorat in searching for Earth, for reasons that would sadly completely spoil the rest of the series for you. What he eventually finds brings the whole series full circle to a satisfactory end.
This has all been rather vague, to avoid giving too much of the plot away, but I enjoyed most of the series. While it covers galaxy hopping adventures, clever court intrigues and breakdowns of psychological inevitability, at its core what the series is about for me is being more than one. A person should strive beyond self-advancement and gain, and be a part of something greater; socially, politically and historically. All the heroes in these stories carry out their tasks not just for themselves, but for those that will follow them too. The man behind it all, Hari Seldon, dies shortly before his plan is put into action. He never sees what happens over the rest of the series, all he can do is pass on his knowledge and hope his successors will do well. A bit of self-sacrifice for future generations is a good thing.
So if you have the time, try giving the series a read. You don’t have to read all of it, there’s three closed stories to pick from. The first is Prelude To Foundation and Forward The Foundation; second is Foundation, Foundation And Empire and Second Foundation; third Foundation’s Edge and Foundation And Earth. The amazing thing is, the those first two in the series were the last two written by Asimov, so you really can read them in any order. I enjoyed it, and think you will too.