Judging a Book by its Covers: The Foundation Trilogy

Isaac Asimov’s body of work is like the Legend of Zelda series: no matter how different the settings, they can almost all be tinkered together into one gigantic history in which any inconsistencies are erased by the vastness of deep time. His chronology moves from the near-future of the robot stories (early 2000s) to the colonization age (the Elijah Bailey novels, set in the 4700s), the eventually establishment of a Galactic Empire (starting around the year 8000) and, finally, the Foundation books, which begin in the last centuries of the Empire, twenty thousand years or more in the future. Plus Norby the Mixed-Up Robot goes in there somewhere.

The Foundation novels cover about five hundred years, and what happens in them? Well –

Foundation begins with Hari Seldon, a man who invents the science of “psychohistory.” The premise of psychohistory is this: you can’t predict what any one person might do, but if you have a large enough group of people, and enough data about them, you can start to make valid predictions. A contemporary example might be how we look at voting populations – it wouldn’t be fair to assume any specific unknown middle-aged white guy is awful, but we know pretty much how the group as a whole is going to vote. Seldon posits that, as long as the population is big enough – like, say, a galaxy-spanning, million-planet empire – you can predict how the broad strokes of history are going to play out hundreds or even thousands of years in advance.

Using psychohistory, Seldon has worked out that the seemingly-strong Empire is only a few centuries from collapse, an event which will set off a thirty-thousand-year dark age – and he plans to establish two great Foundations, one on an out-of-the-way world on the rim and the other “on the other end of the galaxy,” to preserve knowledge which will hopefully hold this dark age to a single millennium. This book is a series of short stories following the establishment of the First Foundation and the first few centuries of its inhabitants attempting to follow the Seldon Plan and prepare for imperial collapse.

Foundation and Empire picks up centuries into the Seldon Plan, where the First Foundation (originally pitched as just a bunch of scholars putting together an encyclopedia) has gotten powerful enough to be a small empire of its own, one that’s powerful enough to take on the big Empire—finally starting to show signs of decay—and win. By now, cracking open the various timed recordings Seldon left behind to confirm that he’d foreseen everything that was going to happen is a ritual, and after a recent skirmish with the Imperial navy comes out in the Foundation’s favor, they’re happy to watch the latest recording of Seldon explaining how, yes, he knew there was going to be a conflict right about now and he knew they would win.

In fact, the First Foundation is starting to get pretty lazy, because Seldon’s been right about so much for so long, what are they even worried about with these “crises”? Seldon calculated everything and knows they’ll come on top, so obviously, whatever they do is going to turn out to be the right thing. It’s the historical equivalent of being told “just be yourself!” and having it actually work. So, when a conqueror known as the Mule appears on the scene and starts gobbling up star systems at a terrifying pace, it can’t be that bad, right? The Foundation’s still going to win in the end. It’s all part of the plan.

Until they watch the latest recording and Seldon starts talking about events that never happened, leading to a moment of bafflement and then a giant, collective OH SHIT. OH SHIT SHIT FUCK SHITFUCK WE’RE OFF THE PLAN WE’RE OFF THE PLAN THE MULE FUCKED UP EVERYTHING WE’RE ALL FUCKED.

It turns out the Mule was a staggeringly unlikely random mutation (later books would revise his origins a bit), born with the ability to manipulate minds and emotions, and Seldon never saw him coming. The book mostly follows a few people trying to track down the mysterious Mule with the help of his one known associate, Magnifico, a rather pathetic and bedraggled clown whose only skill is playing an instrument known as Vizi-Sonor, the inspiration for the Holo-Phonor from Futurama.

Second Foundation follows the Mule’s attempts to track down the mysterious Second Foundation that nobody’s been talking about, only to discover that, just as the First Foundation was originally developed to preserve scientific knowledge the Second Foundation was developed to study mental abilities. And they’re good at them. For instance, they can use mind control, too. In fact, they’re better it than the Mule is.

Whoops! That’s it for the Mule.

A couple of generations later, a teenager named Arkady, granddaughter of one of the original Mule-hunters, gets involved in the search for the Second Foundation, which everyone knows by now is out there and is probably interfering in the Plan, because how else is it back on track so quickly? And who knows what else they might do with that mental woo-woo of theirs? (Obviously we all believe in the Plan, of course, but also the Plan was clearly supposed to end with the First Foundation ruling everything as a new Empire on its own, and we’re a little concerned that the Second Foundation might not share our vision statement, you know?)

One little problem, the Second Foundation was said to be “at the other end of the galaxy,” but there’s nothing special on the rim opposite the First Foundation. Arkady is the one who figures out that the “other end” was not the point across the diameter, but the very center, and discovers the Second Foundation living humbly among the ruins of the Imperial capitol.

(Other interesting definitions for “the other end of the galaxy” which are tried at various points include the “other end” of a complete circumference – i.e. the same planet at the First Foundation – and the “other end” from the most recently settled planet, or in other words the now-lost first planet, Earth.)

Later books (written around three decades after the first trilogy and incorporating elements from the intervening years, such as robots) would tell the story of Seldon as a person rather than a prophet, as well as follow up on the further history of the Foundation, but this is the core trilogy. So, here’s our challenge: we’ve got an epic that sprawls over centuries and a whole galaxy, much of which is concerned with the abstract, invisible workings of sociological mathematics. Sum THAT up, cover artists!

Time Trippers

Del Rey, 1986

Holy smokes, these are beautiful. Three significant points in the Foundation era, illustrated in stunning detail and each with a representative character. Hari Seldon sits on a throne of carefully calculated order. The Mule takes a wrecking ball to the plan and lounges amid the ruins. And Arkady Darell strides through the world that was reborn from that destruction, as nature reclaims the Empire’s decaying vestiges. I love these covers. Bravo!

Huh? Doesn’t the Mule kind of look like a clown here? That’s right! It was Magnifico the whole time, making the Mule an unusually cerebral addition to the hallowed Scary Clown Hall of Fame. Pennywise can eat your soul, but the Mule could make you happy about it.

Grafton Books, 1988

Like the previous set of covers, these emphasize the passage of time. They’re a little more metaphorically on-the-nose than those last editions – sprout, tree, dead tree, sunrise, noon, sunset – and I miss the characters; I appreciated how their presence on the Del Reys helped ground such a sweeping story in the context of real people’s lifetimes. I am absolutely digging that alien tree, though. The natural environment on most Asimov planets, when it’s described at all, is basically just transplanted Earth species, so this was a cool exception.


Panther Books, 1976

A lot of science fiction stuff – particularly of this era, but you’ll see it today on the covers of Becky Chambers, John Scalzi, and plenty of others – is just spaceships and planets, with no specificity. You could take a couple dozen different books, shuffle the art, and you’d never be able to figure out which went with that. And you know, that’s fine! There’s a spaceship, there’s a planet, you know what you’re getting. And the pictures themselves are often lovely, as in this orbital image of a space zeppelin docking with what appears to be an satellite upcycled from found materials.

Voyager, 1994

This artist takes a cue from the Death Star and gives us a simply titanic vision of Trantor at its height, capturing the immense scale of a world encased in metal. A cover you want to fly into and explore (what must it be like in those natural-landscape domes?)


Avon, 1966

This set is striking in its use of weirdly abstract people, playful geometric forms, and color. I think my favorite is Foundation and Empire, where various elements combine to create the impression of an elfin creature. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but it’s pretty neat!

Unknown Bulgarian publisher, 1951

Asimov was born in Russia, which may be connected to why Foundation came out there apparently pretty much right away. (Edit: Or not, commenter Mongo Only Pawn points out this is Bulgarian, not Russian! Sorry about that.) This picture’s a bit unpolished, but I love the nifty cosmic egg thing it’s got going on.

A fun fact I learned while I was confirming Asimov’s place of birth – he didn’t know when his birthday was. It was sometime between October 4 and January 2. He celebrated it on January 2, and why not? Might as well stay young as long as possible.

Hey, let’s read some more about Asimov’s personal life!

On second thought, let’s not.

Panther Books, 1960

“So what’re you going to do for the Foundation cover?”

“I was thinking a close-up shot of some random goo.”

Panther Books, 1960 (again)

Here we seen the traditional spaceship-and-planet composition superseded by the less common spaceship-and-planet-and-suspension-bridge-and-field-of-impressionist-dandelions variant. Could this be the weirdest-ass cover of them all?

Heyne Verlag, 1978


And The Rest

Gnome Books, 1951

The first covers. I could take or leave the original Foundation cover, which is kind of boring to me for the same reason the original Podkayne of Mars cover was, but the others! Look at those gorgeous retro things.

Masada, 1978

This Hebrew edition doesn’t otherwise astound, but it’s the only one I saw which attempted to capture the intersection of reality and pure mathematics which defines the Seldon Plan.

Ace Books, 1955

Seldon may have been able to predict future history, but his eye for fashion trends was a little more questionable. This was an abridged double-bill with Poul Anderson’s No World of Their Own, and used the alternate title The 1000-Year Plan, something you’ll occasionally see on other versions (such as the German “ballsack” edition further up.)

Dely Rey, 2021

I’ve got to say I’m not a huge fan of the practice of putting the movie/TV show on the book cover, but that’s how it goes. This is very No Man’s Sky, huh? I haven’t seen the show, so I entertained myself trying to figure out who and when this was, and I settled on “no idea.”

Denoel, 1990


Folio Society, 2012

A bespoke collector’s edition from the post-Asimov age. We’re a long way from pulp copies of Amazing Science Fiction stuffed into the newsstand here.

Quihuan Jidi, 2004

The Chinese editions fall comfortably into the “generic space stuff” category, but stylishly so. I love those soft blue-greens and pinky-purples.

Qihuan Jidi, 2004 (Traditional Chinese Edition)

I didn’t share many of them because most weren’t that great, but ‘Hari Seldon in a chair’ was a popular subject for more realist covers of the first book, since his recorded words of wisdom were a recurring motif in the otherwise loosely-connected stories. This edition pulls off an interesting twist by replacing Seldon with Asimov himself.

Audiolib, 2019

A lot of covers focused on impressive starships and enormous cities. This French audiobook edition is one of the few that showcases the human side of the Empire… and its crumbling, weather-worn decay.

I’ve got one last cover to share, but before that, let’s stop and consider: what is a cover? Who is it for? For all that I’ve been talking about how well they do or don’t convey what the book is about, they really only have one job: to make you pick the darn thing up and take a closer look. And most of the covers I’ve shared here – even the weird ones, even the completely bonkers ones, maybe even the random goo one – have that certain special something that would have made me look closer if I’d seen them on the shelf at a bookstore. Which, admittedly, in my case that something usually doesn’t need to be more than the letters ‘SF’ visible anywhere on the book, but hey.

The bottom line is, a lot of these are good. Some of them are great. They’re commercial art, but they’re beautiful commercial art, and in this age of bored apes, that’s something we could all use more of. It’s covers like these that made me want to tackle this subject in the first place.

So I’m going to end this article with a great big hand for all the artists.

Ag Kult, 1991