I started reading Asimov's Foundation.

At the beginning of its chapters, there are brief texts extracted from the Encyclopedia Galactica, but they are not complete entries, even if some of these chunks seem to contain crucial information for the novel's plot.

What was the reason for including these incomplete entries?

  • 6
    Not sure what you're asking. It's a fairly common practice in SF to include in-universe "quotes" at the start of each chapter, another well-known example is Dune, but they don't have to be full extracts or even particularly relevant to the chapter/plot itself. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 13:47
  • 12
    They're incomplete because the full text was lost when the Encyclopedia was replaced by the much more popular Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
    – Giuseppe
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 17:59
  • Pretty sure exactly zero speculative fiction authors have manifested a complete backstory to the entirety of the universe in which their stories are set. (aside, Scott Lynch writes about not wanting to actually write the play The Republic of Thieves in his eponymously named novel, despite the fact that fragments of the play's script, and a performance of it are featured throughout the book.)
    – Lexible
    Commented Apr 8, 2020 at 1:19

1 Answer 1


These paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter are called epigraphs. In Foundation and subsequent novels in the same series are, as you correctly pointed out, extracts of the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica, whose name is inspired on the real world Encyclopedia Britannica and is meant to be one of the main sources of collected knowledge in that fictional universe.

Anyway, the Encyclopedia Galactica is just a narrative device, it does not exist as a complete work, and the extracts that you can find at the beginning of each chapter serve only narrative purposes, in example:

  • they provide background information to the reader, without being closely tied to the point of view of the characters, and create expectations by vaguely addressing what will be the main plot of the chapter;
  • they serve as world-building devices: by including fictional scholarly works the author can give his narrative authenticity and provide sense of wonder on a large scale, which is one the main staples of the whole space opera sub-genre;
  • by including these quotes, the author can also accompany his work with some "out-of-universe"-like commentary and tell you "pay attention to these things, which have a heavy historical significance" without breaking the immersion, in fact reinforcing it.

As Daniel Roseman said in his comment, Asimov was not the only author to use this literary device, which is frankly quite common: Frank Herbert's Dune is another example in the sci-fi genre, or even Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose if we consider literature in a more general sense (even if in that case the paragraphs were not extracts from another text in a strict sense).

  • 5
    Note also that the Encyclopedia Galactica was the cover story for the establishment of the First Foundation and the reason to move all those smart people and supporting infrastructure to the remote rim.
    – DavidW
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 18:00
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    Yes of course, there is some interconnected meta-narration going on there :)
    – Sekhemty
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 18:01
  • 1
    There is one more key thing. The Encyclopedia quotes are dated, a thousand-plus years after the establishment of the Foundation. They tell the reader “This is accomplished history. It’s over. You’re not here to find out whether the Foundation plan will work; you know it did work. The fun part is to learn how it came about”. We are given the end upfront and invited to partake on the journey instead (it “worked” but of course the devil is in the details; see The Mule, etc.) Just like you and me reading today about Roman History. It subtly changes how the reader perceives the stories. Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 7:23
  • @EuroMicelli “Just like you and me reading today about Roman History.” — indeed, and not by accident!  In The Early Asimov, the Good Doctor said that his initial idea for Foundation was “something I intended to model quite frankly on the fall of the Roman Empire”.
    – gidds
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 17:10

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