Over the next two months, two classic masterpieces of science fiction literature – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Frank Herbert’s Dune – will be adapted for the screen through a prestige streaming series and a big-budget film franchise respectively. Both works, written by iconic titans of the genre, have been hugely influential in the sci-fi realm, going on to nurture the imaginations of countless writers in subsequent generations. From Star Wars and Wheel of Time, to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and A Song of Ice and Fire, legends like George Lucas, Robert Jordan, Hayao Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin have each credited Dune as a key inspiration for their own creations.
But since no great work comes to fruition in a vacuum, similarly, Frank Herbert was also inspired by an earlier book series. Two decades before Dune, the grandfather of sci-fi Isaac Asimov began publishing his groundbreaking Foundation novels. His epic series tells the story of Hari Seldon and his followers, who use the futuristic science of “psychohistory” (a combination of history, psychology, and other social sciences) to predict the behavioral patterns of human beings on a massive scale, plot their course through a galactic dark age, and preserve scientific knowledge. The themes, ideas, stories and dynamics explored in Foundation, and its associated works, laid the groundwork for everything that Herbert’s own epic tale of political intrigue, religious engineering and ecological manipulation would eventually one day become.
One of the first structural quirks that readers will recognize is that Herbert borrows Asimov’s use of fictional in-universe writings as chapter headers. In Foundation, Asimov begins each chapter with a passage from the Encyclopedia Galactica, which was meant to be a collection of all human knowledge in the universe and was supposedly the reason for the creation of the Foundation. By doing this, Asimov subtly worldbuilds his fictional universe and gives us glimpses of a rich history without overwhelming us in detail. This allows his universe to seem expansive and lived in, which provides a richer reading experience. Likewise, Herbert used excerpts from Princess Irulan’s historical writings as epigraphs to achieve the same effect.
Most obviously, Asimov was the first writer to invent the concept of a “galactic empire”, an idea that would be borrowed and featured heavily in Herbert’s writing (and eventually, many others). Secondly, both authors have cited the non-fiction tome, The History of the Decline and Fall of Rome by Edward Gibbons, as a model for their magnified versions of space-faring empires. Whether each author was independently inspired by Gibbons’ research is uncertain, but what is indisputable is that Asimov did it first. Upon closer inspection, the complex and drawn out series of events that led to the decline of the Roman Empire is mirrored in Foundation and Dune. Both Asimov and Herbert highlight the arrogance and decadence of those in power and how their behaviours contribute to the decline of their respective empires. Both series also emphasize that a small group of radicalized “barbarians” outside “civilized” society can alter the course of human history.
The rise and fall of empires is not something that can be portrayed within the lifespan of any individual characters. Thus Dune parallels Foundation’s propensity for jumping ahead decades, centuries, and sometimes even many millenia – never spending too much time with any particular characters (excluding Duncan Idaho’s many clones) – but instead following their descendants or successors in order to carry on the larger story of how societies, religions, politics and ruling structures evolve in cyclical patterns over time. But beyond these surface analogues, once we delve into the thematic meat of both epics, you’ll clearly understand how Dune was not only inspired by, but a direct commentary and counterpoint to Foundation.
In Dune, Herbert used heroic myth elements from the Western tradition in an effort to show readers the myriad of factors that lead to the inception of a messianic religion. According to Herbert, religion and hero worship are consistent human responses to suffering. Both faith and charismatic leadership spring from a need for security and meaning in a universe which, as Paul notes, “is always one step beyond logic.” Herbert first crafts a typical hero’s journey for Muad’Dib, before dismantling and destroying “chosen one” tropes in later books. Herbert goes to great lengths to explain why believing in a white saviour figure – despite his prescience and power and genius – is ultimately foolish.
Likewise, Herbert posits that the use of science in modern civilization betrays the same pattern as messianic religion. In Dune, two sciences appear cloaked as mysticism – the Fremen’s Islamic beliefs have been altered by their planet’s ecology while the Bene Gesserit’s “witchcraft” is nothing more than psychology. The many weaknesses of both as tools for socio-political control are made clear in Dune‘s sequels. The Bene Gesserit are plainly based in part on the scientific wizards of Asimov’s trilogy. Herbert’s judgment on them is implicit in the way he has reversed the roles played by such scientists in Dune.
Foundation is set in a crumbling galactic empire, in which “psychohistorian” Seldon has analyzed with mathematical precision the forces acting upon masses of people and can predict nearly exactly what will happen hundreds and even thousands of years in the future. Seldon has set up a foundation to act in accordance with the statistical laws of psychohistory and take the necessary steps to bring about a new order from the ruins of the old – in much the same way that Paul and his son Leto II employ prescience. Despite prescience being more metaphysical in nature, its use in both narratives is identical. In Seldon’s vision, the Foundation will enable the rebuilding of galactic civilization in 1,000 years instead of the 10,000 years of turmoil that would otherwise be required. This clearly mirrors Paul and his children’s “Golden Path” to rebuild humanity in God Emperor of Dune, as well as the Bene Gennerit’s machinations in later books.
The accuracy of Seldon’s scientific predictions are precise in Foundation, until a freak mutant called “the Mule” is born. This was completely unexpected by Seldon, whose science could predict only mass dynamics and not the truly exceptional individual. The Mule shatters the Foundation‘s precious new civilization with his own vision for the future, but is eventually thwarted by a “second foundation” established by Seldon to study the science of the mind and to prepare for such unforeseen emergencies. Likewise in Dune, the Bene Gesserit and the other forces shaping humanity are caught off-guard by the early coming of the prophesized “Kwisatz Haderach” aka Paul Atreides, an exceptional being of incalculable prescience and power who upturns the ruling structures for better and for worse. The key difference is that Paul and his son Leto II could never be predicted or stopped by such sciences.
In an essay, Herbert wrote that, “History [in Foundation] is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take… While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.”
Herbert has more or less concocted the same imaginative situation that provoked Asimov’s classic – the decay of a galactic empire – and reframed it in a way that draws on different assumptions and suggests radically different conclusions. The twist he has introduced into Dune is that the Mule, not the Foundation, is his hero. Meanwhile, the Bene Gesserit is his version of the “scientist-shamans” of the Foundation. Their science of prediction and control is biological rather than statistical, but their intentions are similar to those of Asimov’s psychohistorians. In a crumbling empire, they seek to grasp the reins of change.
The Sisterhood sees the need for genetic redistribution – which ultimately motivates the Fremen jihad – and has tried to control that redistribution by means of their breeding program. Their overall intention is to manage the future of the human race – but Paul, like the Mule, is the unexpected betrayal of their plans. Dune’s primary message is that the universe cannot be managed, and the vitality of the human race lies in its random generation of new possibilities. The only real surety is that surprises will occur. In contrast to the Foundation trilogy’s exaltation of rationality’s march to predicted victory, Dune proclaims that the unexpected is what will ensure humanity’s survival.
From their humble roots as serialized stories in sci-fi magazines (Astounding Stories and Analog Science Fiction and Fact respectively) back in the 1940s and 1960s, to selling millions of copies each and earning the most prestigious accolades (a plethora of Hugo and Nebula awards abound for both series), Foundation and Dune have thrilled and shaped generations of sci-fi fans for over 80 years. Hopefully, with the success of the upcoming Foundation series on Apple TV+ and Denis Villeneuve’s highly-anticipated Dune film franchise with Warner Bros. and HBO Max – the complementary and contrasting ideas contained in both visionary master works will continue to spark the imaginations of a new generation.
Foundation premieres on Apple TV+ on September 24.