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The Foundation Trilogy

This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in September 2023 and was reprinted with permission in the May/June 2024 issue of Freelance Traveller.

The Foundation Trilogy. Isaac Asimov
Original Publication: (see text)
Current Availability: Print, eBook (multiple sources)

Author’s Note: Traveller had many literary influences that affected the design of the game and its Charted Space, and it's also seen many fictional publication of its own over the years. The article, the 31st in a series discussing Traveller Fiction, looks at one of the inspirational books credited by Marc Miller as an influence on Traveller.

This review covers the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov, originally written as short stories from 1942-1950 for Astounding magazine and later collected into three short books: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1952). It’s of course since been adapted as the Apple TV+ series, Foundation (2021-Present).

About the Series

Hari Seldon has a plan. As the Galactic Empire begins to collapse, he uses his psychological discipline of psychohistory to formulate a methodology by which a new Galactic Empire can rise in just 1,000 years, avoiding an additional 29,000 years of human misery and suffering. To carry out this plan, he establishes the Foundation, who will author the Encyclopedia Galactica, and on the opposite side of the Galaxy, at “Star’s End”, a more mysterious Second Foundation, which will ensure that the plans of the First Foundation are not thwarted.

The Foundation Trilogy is an expansive set of stories that covers the first 350 years or so of the 1,000-year Interregnum between the fall of the First Galactic Empire and the (hopeful) rise of the Second. It begins as a series of Crises over the generations: in each crisis, a problem rises up to threaten the Foundation (be it stellar kingdoms that arise in the wake of the Galactic Empire or the last gasp of the Empire itself) but then falls to the historical inevitability of Seldon’s plan. Realizing that the series was growing staid and predictable, Asimov switched things up in the sixth story, “The Mule” (1945), where an unpredictable mule utterly upsets the plan (for psychohistory can only predict the movements of large groups of people, not individuals). The final two stories, “Now You See It …” (1948), and “… And Now You Don’t” (1949), which were collected as Second Foundation, then tell the story of how things might be righted afterward.

Genre & Style

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines space opera as “action adventure, commonly of a galactic scale”. It’s the larger-than-life story of an entire populated galaxy. At first the term was pejorative, used in relation to “soap operas” and “horse operas” (Westerns), but it was redefined again and again over the decades until it came to its modern usage sometime in the ’90s to describe epic, empire-spanning stories. Today, E.E. “Doc” Smith is considered the father of the genre thanks to his Skylark of Space stories (1928) and his Lensmen series (1948-1954). James Blish, Frank Herbert, and Edmond Hamilton were other early authors in the genre … and of course Isaac Asimov.

Isaac Asimov’s take on the space opera genre in the Foundation Trilogy goes right to the time of greatest tension. He doesn’t focus on a mature and healthy Galactic Empire, but instead on one teetering on the precipice. And, though the Trilogy starts out at the center of all civilization (on Trantor) and later revisits that locale, it quickly forces its protagonists out to the edge of the galaxy: the remote world of Terminus. These are the places that space opera’s action-adventure can occur, as civilizations rise and fall in the imperial outskirts — a lesson that the Traveller RPG would learn (more than once) over the years.

But beyond being a space opera, the Foundation Trilogy is also a future history, a term believed to have originated with John Campbell of Astounding to describe Robert Heinlein’s stories of man’s technological expansion and explorations of the solar system, initially collected in The Past through Tomorrow (1975) and Orphans of the Sky (1963). Asimov wrote his history upon a much larger canvas, telling a galaxy-spanning tale that covers (in its original form) about 350 years of history — and even more when Asimov later expanded his story from the modern day to the end of the Interregnum. That epic scope is likely in part due to another source that Asimov referenced: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), which told an equally epic story on Earth.

Though the Foundation Trilogy is a masterwork as both a Space Opera and a Future History, in large part because of its expansive scope in space and time and because of its innovative idea of psychohistorical prediction, it does suffer from some of the faults of science-fiction in the ’40s. The writing is spare and the characterization is often shallow, especially for the earlier Foundation stories, which were quite short. They’re mainly written as puzzles: how will the Foundation overcome this newest crisis? And later: where is the Second Foundation? Fortunately, the short length of the stories (and the books overall, which together total the length of a single modern doorstopper) keep things moving along and ensure the books remain light.

Applicability to Traveller Gameplay

The Foundation Trilogy tells of a Galactic Empire of 20 or 25 million planets that is 12,000 years old. An Emperor, Cleon, rules over all. His banner is the spaceship-and-sun, and his vast domain contains prefects, which come together as provinces, then sectors, then quadrants. The sectors have names, such as the “Normannic Sector”. Many of them are thousands of parsecs away, underlining how huge the Galactic Empire is.

Other than being unimaginably larger than the 12,000 stars of the Third Imperium, that seems like a rough description of Traveller’s human polity. Many of the details are subtly different, such as the spaceship-and-sun becoming the Imperial Starburst, provinces being replaced by subsectors, and Cleon becoming the first emperor of the Third Imperium rather than the last emperor of the Galactic Empire, but it nonetheless is obvious that the Foundation Trilogy was an inspiration for the overall shape of Traveller’s empire of Humaniti.

As the Galactic Empire falls, smaller kingdoms rise. A Civil War soon encompasses the Empire, with nine emperors ruling in 50 years, seven of them assassinated. Worse is promised: that Interregnum of 30,000 years. This also feels like it was inspirational, suggesting some of the backstory of Traveller such as the Long Night between the second two Imperiums and the Civil War of Milieu 600.

A few other elements from the Foundation Trilogy cleave near to the later design of Traveller’s Charted Space:

Merchants. There is a focus on traders, especially in the early stories. At first they’re the pathfinders who lay the groundwork of the Foundation. They even come to be called Merchant Princes! Later, they’re a more chaotic force that might be problematic for the maturing society.

Space Travel. Space travel in the Foundation universe is slow. This isn’t because of the travel itself, which is through hyperspace and so almost instantaneous, but instead due to the calculations, which can take a week of time! These jumps also can’t happen too close to a gravity well. (Though in later stories, Asimov begins to handwave his early limitations due to the establishment of “routes” through space.)

Psionics. Finally, the last half of the Foundation Trilogy is all about the psionic powers of The Mule and the Second Foundation. This was an increasingly common trope in Campbellian-influenced science fiction of the ’50s, but Asimov was one of the earlier authors to touch upon it. He posits emotional control, the ability to scientifically detect it, and the possibility of great mental battles. He even sees the mind masters of the Second Foundation as the ultimate inheritors of the Galactic Empire, suggesting that their Second Empire might be like Traveller’s Zhodani Consulate.

All of these large-scale inspirational influences are together the biggest reason that the Foundation Trilogy is applicable to Traveller gameplay. Many elements of Charted Space, such as the planet of Capital, the feel of a massive empire, the control of psionicists, and the need for state-sponsored Merchants, could be fleshed out by drawing upon Foundation lore. It could be equally applicable for the Golden Age, the Rebellion, or the New Era because of the Foundation Trilogy’s vast span of time.

Besides providing background details, the Foundation Trilogy could also offer adventure seeds for Traveller play. Just drawing upon the major elements of Foundation, these could include:

  1. The Imperium is upset by scientific predictions.
  2. A pocket empire demands tribute.
  3. A pocket empire threatens war.
  4. A trader will be executed for trading to the wrong people.
  5. Traders are going missing.


The Foundation Trilogy, with its origins in the ’40s, was one of the earliest science-fiction writings to inspire the Traveller game. Its influence is also among the strongest. A 12,000-year-old, 20-million-star Empire could easily be the Third Imperium (albeit, at a more reasonable yet still huge scale), but generally the book is full of ideas that could inspire Traveller sessions (and certainly did inspire the game in the first place). It also remains an enjoyable read eighty years after it was written, even if it’s a bit sparse by modern standards.