Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series stands as a monumental achievement in science fiction, weaving a tapestry of narratives that span millennia and explore the rise and fall of civilizations. For newcomers to this intricate universe, however, the path to immersion might appear daunting.
With prequels, sequels, and the original trilogy penned over decades, determining an optimal reading order is not a straightforward task. Yet, the sequence in which one approaches these novels can profoundly shape the experience and understanding of Asimov’s grand vision. As a lifelong Asimov fan since my childhood, in this article, I try to guide readers through the cosmic maze of the Foundation saga, suggesting a curated reading order that captures both the series’ chronological events and its evolving thematic depth.
In what order one must read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series?
For those delving into Asimov’s expansive universe, the question of reading order is paramount. While it’s tempting to follow the sequence in which Asimov penned the novels, to truly immerse oneself in the fabric of his intertwined narratives, I’d advocate for the chronological order based on the events within the story’s universe.
This approach offers a coherent, step-by-step journey through the intricacies of Asimov’s cosmos. Starting with the foundational elements of the Robot series and transitioning seamlessly into the grandeur of the Foundation saga, readers are provided a logical and enriching pathway through the interconnected tales. It’s a route that unveils Asimov’s vision in its fullest depth, capturing the evolution of characters, societies, and themes as they unfold in the grand timeline he envisioned.
First, you need to read the Robot Series
The journey into Asimov’s universe begins most fittingly with the Robot series. Initially, Asimov embarked on two separate literary ventures: the Robot Stories, which delved into the intricacies of human-robot relations and the moral complexities of artificial intelligence, and the Foundation series, which portrayed the sprawling saga of a galactic empire’s decline and rebirth. However, he later decided to meld these two universes into a single cohesive narrative.
As a result of this fusion, the events and philosophical quandaries of the Robot series become instrumental in understanding the deeper layers of the Foundation’s later tales. To fully appreciate the interconnected nature of this grand narrative and its evolving themes, starting with the Robot series is not just a recommendation, but a necessity.
One of the most compelling reasons to commence with the Robot series lies in the characters that become instrumental in the overarching narrative of the Foundation universe. Central among these is R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot with a profound sense of duty and a lifespan that stretches across millennia. Daneel’s journey, from his initial roles in the Robot novels to his pivotal influence in the latter parts of the Foundation series, exemplifies Asimov’s genius in bridging the two worlds.
By understanding the depth of characters like Daneel, their motivations, evolutions, and intricate relationships with humans, readers gain a richer appreciation for the subsequent twists and turns in the Foundation saga. These characters are not mere transitory figures; they are the linchpins that hold Asimov’s integrated universe together.
The reading order of Asimov’s Robot Series:
1. Liar! [1941 short story]
This is actually not included in Asimov’s Robot Series, it is a 1941 short story reprinted in the collections I, Robot (1950). The story holds a special place not just for its exploration of the Three Laws of Robotics, but also for introducing readers to Dr. Susan Calvin. Calvin is a robot psychologist at the U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men Corporation, and over the course of various stories, she becomes the central figure in understanding the complexities of robot behavior within the boundaries of the Three Laws of Robotics (see notes 1).
In “Liar!”, a robot named Herbie is found to possess an unusual ability to read human emotions and thoughts. As the story unfolds, Calvin’s keen intellect and emotional depth are put to the test when she confronts the implications of Herbie’s unique skill. This story not only establishes Calvin’s prominent role in the Robot series but also showcases Asimov’s ability to intertwine human emotion with the logical constraints of robotics, setting the tone for many of the series’ subsequent tales.
2. The Caves of Steel : The Introduction of R. Daneel Olivaw and Elijah Baley
“The Caves of Steel” is a seminal work in Asimov’s collection, primarily for introducing R. Daneel Olivaw and Elijah Baley, two characters who would play pivotal roles in the expansive universe Asimov constructed.
R. Daneel Olivaw is not only remarkable as a humanoid robot, indistinguishable in appearance from humans but also for his intricate programming that aligns with the Three Laws of Robotics. As the series progresses, Daneel evolves into a significant figure, especially as Asimov begins to weave the Robot stories into the fabric of the Foundation series. His longevity and deep involvement in galactic events make him a key connector between the two previously separate series.
Elijah Baley, on the other hand, is a plainclothes police detective from Earth. Baley’s significance stems from his role as the human counterpoint to Daneel’s robotic logic. Throughout their adventures, Baley’s organic intuition and emotional responses contrast sharply with Daneel’s analytical approach, offering readers a profound exploration of the interplay between humanity and technology. Baley’s character also delves into the socio-political challenges of a future Earth, where humans live in vast underground cities, or “caves of steel,” a reflection of a future where mankind grapples with space, identity, and its relationship with robotics.
Together, Baley and Daneel form a dynamic duo, with their partnership and interactions providing deep insights into Asimov’s thoughts on humanity’s future, the ethical quandaries of robotics, and the potential paths our civilization might take.
3. The Naked Sun : Solaria and its Role in later Foundation Novels
“The Naked Sun” is the sequel to “The Caves of Steel” and further delves into the partnership of Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw. Set in the distant Spacer world of Solaria, the novel unveils a society that is a stark contrast to the overpopulated, enclosed cities of Earth.
Solaria is a world where humans live in vast, isolated estates, avoiding direct contact and preferring to interact through holographic communication, termed “viewing” instead of face-to-face, or “seeing”. This extreme form of social distancing has profound psychological, cultural, and technological implications for its inhabitants. Robots vastly outnumber humans on Solaria and cater to every need, further reducing the need for interpersonal interactions.
The importance of Solaria extends beyond the Robot series. In “Foundation and Earth”, one of the sequels of Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, the protagonists, including Golan Trevize and Janov Pelorat, search for the original home of humanity, Earth. Their journey leads them to various planets, with Solaria being one of their key stops. By this time, Solaria had undergone even more radical transformations.
The planet’s portrayal in “Foundation and Earth” serves as a chilling contemplation on the potential endpoints of human evolution and societal development, especially when heavily reliant on technology. The legacy of Solaria’s decisions and its unique societal structure act as cautionary tales and are central to the exploration of humanity’s destiny in Asimov’s universe.
4. The Robots of Dawn 
“Robots of Dawn” serves as another pivotal narrative in Asimov’s Robot series, deepening the exploration of the dynamic duo, Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw, as they find themselves on the Spacer world of Aurora. At the heart of the story is a mystery surrounding the malfunction of a humanoid robot, one eerily similar to Daneel, requiring Baley’s detective prowess to unravel the intricacies of the Spacer society.
A central figure in this narrative is Roj Nemennuh Sarton, a Spacer and the original designer of R. Daneel Olivaw. Sarton’s vision contrasts starkly with the prevailing Spacer philosophy. While the Spacers, with their extended lifespans and reliance on robots, see themselves as the rightful heirs to the galaxy, Sarton believes in the potential of the “Earthers”. He envisions the short-lived, vibrant humans from Earth as the true pioneers who should colonize and bring life to the galaxy, rather than the stagnant and isolationist Spacers. This perspective seeds a foundational idea that resonates profoundly in the Foundation series.
Sarton’s belief indirectly challenges and reshapes the trajectory of humanity’s expansion into space. It sets the stage for the eventual rise of the Galactic Empire, the very entity the Foundation was established to mitigate the fall of. The underlying tensions between Earth and the Spacer worlds, emphasized by Sarton’s vision, serve as the early catalysts for the vast sociopolitical movements that come to dominate Asimov’s Foundation universe. Thus, “Robots of Dawn” not only progresses the Robot series but also plants essential philosophical and political questions that echo throughout the Foundation saga.
5. Robots and Empire : A Crucial Bridge to the Foundation Universe
“Robots and Empire” stands as a significant transition point in Asimov’s universe, connecting the dots between his Robot and Foundation series. The novel takes place a couple of centuries after “Robots of Dawn,” with the continued evolution of key characters such as R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov.
One of the most critical aspects of this novel lies in the decision by Giskard and Daneel regarding Earth’s fate. While they do not directly make Earth radioactive, they opt not to prevent it, realizing that this catastrophic event would galvanize Earth’s inhabitants to spread across the galaxy. This monumental decision has overarching implications, setting the stage for the eventual establishment of the Galactic Empire and the subsequent narrative of the Foundation series.
Giskard’s unique ability to influence human minds is a focal point in the story. Recognizing the potential and the dangers of this power, as he nears the end of his operational life, Giskard transfers this mind-altering capability to Daneel. This transfer is pivotal, empowering Daneel to play a monumental role in shaping the future of the galaxy and bridging the events of the Robot and Foundation sagas.
Interwoven in this grand narrative is the tale of Gladia Delmarre, a familiar figure from “The Naked Sun” and “Robots of Dawn.” Now, she is accompanied by a descendant of Elijah Baley (Elijah is long dead in the novel), “Daneel Giskard Baley”, emphasizing the lasting impact of Baley’s legacy. Yet, the relationships and potential arcs involving Daneel, Giskard, Baley’s descendant, and Gladia seem to be left in a state of flux. There’s a sense that Asimov, in his urgency to bridge his two major series, might have rushed certain elements of the novel, leaving some narrative threads tantalizingly open-ended.
1. The Currents of Space 
“The Currents of Space” is one of Asimov’s early Empire novels, delving into the story of Trantor, a significant planet which, at this point in time, is on its ascent to becoming the administrative center of a vast Galactic Empire. The narrative explores the socio-political machinations surrounding the planet Florinia, known for its production of “kyrt”, a valuable fiber.
This novel, like “Pebble in the Sky,” (see below) serves as a foundational piece in understanding the broader canvas of the Foundation universe. While it’s not directly about the Foundation or psychohistory, its portrayal of Trantor’s growing influence and political maneuverings gives readers an insightful look into the embryonic stages of the Galactic Empire. This empire becomes central to the events of the Foundation series.
Asimov’s depiction of the various planetary cultures, the economic dependencies, and the power dynamics in “The Currents of Space” offers a microcosmic glimpse of the larger, more intricate interstellar politics that come into play in the Foundation saga. By understanding the early tensions and alliances formed in novels like this, readers gain a richer appreciation for the eventual complexities that Hari Seldon grapples with in his quest to mitigate the inevitable fall of the Empire in the Foundation series.
2. Pebble in the Sky 
“Pebble in the Sky” was Asimov’s first novel, published in January 1950. The story revolves around Joseph Schwartz, an unsuspecting 20th-century Earthman who is inadvertently transported tens of thousands of years into the future. In this era, Earth is a radioactive backwater in a sprawling Galactic Empire, viewed with disdain and considered a “pebble” in the vast sky of the galaxy.
While “Pebble in the Sky” was initially conceived outside the Foundation narrative, the novel’s setting (the Galactic Empire) serves as a direct precursor to the events in the Foundation series. Asimov’s depiction of the Empire, with its intricate politics, socio-cultural dynamics, and the looming sense of inevitable decline, foreshadows the conditions that lead to the rise of Hari Seldon and his work on psychohistory in the Foundation tales. The novel solidifies Earth’s role in galactic history, offering foundational context and texture to the more expansive events that unravel in the Foundation saga. In essence, “Pebble in the Sky” can be viewed as an early window into the universe that the Foundation series would further explore and elaborate upon.
3. The Stars, Like Dust 
There isn’t actually a direct connection between the Foundation series and Asimov’s 1951 novel “The Stars, Like Dust”. Except, Visi-Sonor. In The Stars, Like Dust, a man named Gillbret invented Visi-Sonor, a fictional musical instrument that generates both sound and light patterns, directly in the audience’s brain, creating an immersive experience. The “instrument” has a profound emotional impact on listeners.
In the Foundation series, the Visi-Sonor makes its appearance in the second book of the original trilogy, “Foundation and Empire,” specifically in the story titled “The Mule.” The Mule, a mutant with the power to manipulate emotions, uses the Visi-Sonor to amplify his abilities and control large groups of people. The instrument acts as more than just a source of music; it becomes a tool for psychological and emotional manipulation on a massive scale.
Mule employs the instrument during his conquests to demoralize his enemies and boost the morale of his own troops. The Visi-Sonor thus becomes a potent tool for psychological warfare, elevating him from a mere warlord to an almost mythical figure capable of bending entire populations to his will.
The reading order of Asimov’s Foundation Series
- Prelude to Foundation : “Prelude to Foundation” delves into the early life of Hari Seldon, the genius behind psychohistory. Set on the majestic planet Trantor, at the zenith of the Galactic Empire’s power, the novel follows a young Seldon as he grapples with the nascent stages of his groundbreaking theory. Through encounters with various sectors of Trantorian society and challenges to his life and work, Seldon begins to see the potential of psychohistory to predict and influence the future of the vast Empire. Acting as a narrative bridge, “Prelude” provides valuable insight into the motivations and challenges that shape Seldon’s later monumental efforts, setting the stage for the expansive events in the subsequent Foundation series.
- Forward the Foundation : “Forward the Foundation” continues the tale of Hari Seldon, further chronicling his endeavors to refine and implement his psycho-historical predictions. As Trantor experiences political unrest and the early signs of the Empire’s decline become evident, Seldon faces personal and professional challenges. Balancing personal loss with the urgency to establish the Foundations – repositories of knowledge meant to preserve and rebuild civilization after the Empire’s fall – the novel offers an intimate look at Seldon’s sacrifices and determination. Serving as a crucial link, “Forward” captures the final years of Seldon’s life, solidifying his legacy and leading directly into the onset of the Foundation era, where his grand vision is put to the test on the galactic stage.
- Foundation [1951, the first novel of the original Foundation Trilogy]: “The Foundation” marks the start of Asimov’s iconic Foundation Trilogy, launching readers into the aftermath of Hari Seldon’s predictions. With the Galactic Empire in decline, Seldon’s plan to create two “Foundations” at opposite ends of the galaxy begins to unfold. The novel traces the early challenges faced by the First Foundation, situated on the periphery of planet Terminus. Through a series of “Seldon Crises” – pivotal moments predicted by psychohistory where the outcome determines the Foundation’s survival – the story showcases the power of Seldon’s foresight and the Foundation’s innovative use of religion and trade to wield influence. Within this narrative, Asimov explores the interplay of individual actions and predetermined history, setting the tone for the epic saga that follows.
- Foundation and Empire [1952, the second novel of the original Foundation Trilogy]: “Foundation and Empire” is the second installment in Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, delving deeper into the intricate evolution of the First Foundation. As the original Galactic Empire begins its final descent into chaos, two central challenges emerge: the formidable general Bel Riose, representing the last vestiges of the old Empire’s might, and the mysterious and unpredictable force of the Mule, an individual with unique abilities that pose a direct threat to the Foundation’s existence. Through these adversities, Asimov examines the limits of Hari Seldon’s psycho-historical predictions and the interplay between preordained paths and unpredictable variables. The novel encapsulates the struggle between the remnants of a dying order and the emerging new civilization, highlighting the fragility and resilience of the Foundation’s grand vision.
- Second Foundation [1953, the third novel of the original Foundation Trilogy]: “Second Foundation” forms the gripping conclusion to Asimov’s initial Foundation Trilogy. With the First Foundation recovering from the unexpected disruptions caused by the Mule, the search intensifies for the mysterious Second Foundation, believed to be the hidden safeguard of Hari Seldon’s plan. Operating in the shadows and possessing advanced mental abilities, the Second Foundation represents the psychological counterweight to the First Foundation’s physical prowess. As the two Foundations engage in a high-stakes mental chess game, Asimov delves deep into themes of knowledge, power, and manipulation. This novel underscores the intricate balance between foresight and free will, unearthing the true depth of Seldon’s vision and setting the stage for further explorations in the Foundation universe.
- Foundation’s Edge : “Foundation’s Edge” rejuvenates Asimov’s epic saga after a three-decade hiatus since the original trilogy. The story plunges us into a galaxy where both the First and Second Foundations seem secure in their roles, each believing they’ve neutralized the other. However, a new intrigue arises as Golan Trevize, a Councilman of the First Foundation, begins to suspect another concealed player manipulating the course of galactic events. This suspicion leads him on a quest, alongside historian Janov Pelorat, to find Earth, the lost origin planet of humanity. Asimov expands the scope of the series, introducing Gaia, a planet with a collective consciousness. “Foundation’s Edge” reconfigures the narrative landscape, adding layers of complexity to the balance of power in the Foundation universe and pushing the boundaries of Seldon’s original plan.
- Foundation and Earth : “Foundation and Earth” continues the quest of Golan Trevize, delving deeper into his search for the historical and symbolic planet Earth. As Trevize, alongside historian Janov Pelorat and the enigmatic Bliss from Gaia, navigates through remnants of ancient Spacer worlds, the narrative revisits elements from Asimov’s Robot series, intertwining the two sagas. Through their journey, the trio grapples with profound questions about humanity’s origins, destiny, and the choices that will determine the galaxy’s future. The culmination of their quest offers a revelation that reshapes the understanding of the Foundation’s role and purpose. Asimov masterfully interweaves past narratives, drawing connections that span millennia, and sets the stage for a potential new direction for the galactic narrative.
Are Foundation Series Still Worth Reading?
The Foundation series has, for decades, held its revered place as one of the cornerstones of science fiction literature. For many, like myself, who journeyed through its pages in the 80s and 90s, it was a transformative experience, and its influence on its original readership in the 1950s was unparalleled.
Indeed, when picking up these books today, one must remember they are rooted in the 1950s. The absence of technologies we now take for granted, like mobile phones or laptop computers, might be jarring to contemporary readers. Yet, there are compelling reasons why diving into the Foundation universe remains worthwhile. Here are ten of them:
- Timeless Themes: Beyond the specifics of technology, Asimov delves into universal human themes – power, knowledge, and destiny – that remain relevant regardless of the era.
- Complex Characters: While tech might change, human nature doesn’t. Asimov’s characters, with their ambitions, dilemmas, and growth, resonate with readers even today.
- Innovative World-Building: The vast Galactic Empire, with its myriad planets and cultures, is a masterclass in crafting expansive universes.
- Influence on Modern Sci-Fi: Many contemporary science fiction authors, films, and series have been inspired by the series. Reading the series offers insights into the roots of many modern tales.
- Exploration of Psychohistory: The concept, a blend of mass psychology and statistics to predict the future is a unique and thought-provoking centerpiece of the series.
- Engaging Story Arcs: From the establishment of the two Foundations to the intrigue of the Mule, Asimov crafts captivating narratives that keep readers hooked.
- Interconnection with Other Works: The merging of the Robot and Foundation series creates a richer tapestry and is a treat for those keen on expansive literary universes.
- Philosophical Depth: Asimov isn’t just about space and tech; he poses profound questions about civilization, morality, and humanity’s place in the cosmos.
- Literary Legacy: As part of the science fiction canon, appreciating both series gives readers a deeper understanding of the genre’s evolution.
- Time Capsule Quality: Reading the Foundation series is a journey back in time, offering a glimpse into the hopes, fears, and speculations of a generation at the dawn of the space age.
In conclusion, while the Foundation series reflects its times and might not present the futuristic shock it once did, its rich tapestry of stories, characters, and ideas ensures it remains an enriching experience for readers of all ages.
1. Three Laws of Robotics
Dr. Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics are:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
These three laws were later adopted by other science fiction authors and have been referenced in numerous works of popular culture.
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