Spoiled Books: Foundation

Cover of the 1966 Avon edition of Foundation

We're going to try something new here. Writing about books. And maybe other creative works. I'd like to put some more content on my blog, and books seem like a good source of that.

This isn't a formal review, or an essay submitted for academic consideration. It's just some of my thoughts about the work, why it's meaningful to me, what I think it says to the world, that sort of thing. It's opinionated and full of spoilers — if you would prefer to avoid them, the close-tab button is up there somewhere.

So with that, let's get started. Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (comprising Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) was probably, until last year, my favorite trilogy.


Premise: Quantitative Social Science, Perfected

Foundation follows the standard pattern of ‘straight’ sci-fi1: posit a scientific development or context and work out social, environmental, and other implications of it. I enjoy reading sci-fi that does that and does it well.

When Foundation opens, we aren't left guessing at the premise. The recently-perfected science of ‘psychohistory’ — quantitative history, sociology, political science, etc., developed to be as predictive as physics in terms of the statistical behavior of societies of people — has shown that the Galactic Empire will soon collapse, and there will be 10,000 years of war and conflict before a similarly stable arrangement is once again achieved. Hari Seldon, the discoverer and principle expert of psychohistory, has discovered a means of shortening this period to 1000 years, and to that end, created two foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy. The books are primarily directly concerned with the activities of the First Foundation, ostensibly founded to curate an Encyclopedia of galactic knowledge and history. Through psychohistory, Seldon predicted that creating these foundations, with particular goals and instructions, would cause the emergence of a second empire after only 1000 years of conflict.

What are the ramifications of such a science? In this scheme of predictable courses of human events, what are the roles of science, commerce, religion, and government? These are the questions with which Foundation is concerned, at least at the outset.

Asimov at his Height

These books are, in my opinion, the height of Asimov's creative work. Short stories were the form in which he was by far the strongest, and Foundation was written and originally serialized as 8 short stories (4 for the first book, and 2 each — approaching novellas in their length — for the second and third).

With the spare strokes of a sketch artist, Asimov tells his story — the story of the first few centuries of the inter-empire conflict — by dropping in to key moments and describing specific events and characters that shape the broader universe. He paints its inflection points, and leaves the reader to interpolate the rest of the curve.

Most of Foundation would make terrible TV or cinema.

Science and its Subjects

The single most fascinating thing to me about the world of Foundation is the social-scientific premise: that we can predict the future course of human events with the same accuracy with which we can chart orbital mechanics.

Two crucial caveats to ‘psychohistory’ make it particularly tenable as a premise. First, it is statistical; it operates at the level of societies, at least as large as a good-sized city (better if it's being used to model an entire planet's population). It cannot predict the behavior of individual people, and it becomes less accurate as the size of the group being modeled decreases. This is how we would expect any such science to work.

Second, the predictions are invalid if the population for which they are computed is aware of them. Members of society can be aware of the existence of pyscho-history, but cannot know its particular predictions; as a corollary, if sufficient members of the society in question know pyscho-history, then they could deduce and thereby invalidate the predictions, and thus there were no psychohistorians in the Encyclopedia Foundation.

I've wondered how we could test whether widespread dissemination of the findings of social and behavioral science affect their future validity. In some cases, could effects fail to replicate because they became sufficiently well-known so as to inoculate future research participants against them?

The necessity for subjects' ignorance also brings us to a major weakness: psychohistory is only deployable in heavily paternalistic settings. The Seldon Plan is the mother of all Nudges. There is no room for autonomy, for self-determination, except within the degrees of freedom afforded by the intrinsically statistical nature of psychohistory.

Breaking the Premise

The first book and a half are entirely concerned with working out the course of history under psychohistory in a relatively straightforward fashion.

In the second part of Foundation and Empire, the story ‘The Mule’, we take a turn: what happens when events arise that psychohistory cannot account for? In this case, it was the rise of ‘the Mule’, a mutant who is able to telepathically influence significant groups of people. Psychohistory cannot model individuals, and when an individual arises with such outsized ability to affect the course of events things break down.

Second Foundation describes the search for the other foundation. Seldon said he founded two, but did not specify the location of the second it had no visible activity or influence; some were questioning whether it ever actually existed. In concluding the search, however, Asimov takes us to a second level of breaking down the premise: what if psychohistory never really worked? Or, at the very least, what if it was incomplete? The Second Foundation, it turns out, was entirely psycho-historians, working out the remaining details of the Seldon Plan that he was unable to complete before his death.

As a reader, I loved the trajectory of the scientific premise. Psychohistory itself was almost a character. What if it works? What happens when it meets an insurmountable obstacle? What if it never really worked as well as we were led to believe?

Staring in STS at the Great Men

But the Foundation is cracked. For all his imagination, Asimov couldn't create a world where the Important Decisions weren't mostly being made by old men of unmarked race literally smoking cigars in private meetings in back or upper or whatever rooms. We have interstellar travel, safe nuclear power that fits in your pocket, an empire that spans a galaxy, and the day-to-day of who is deciding the course of history and how is precisely as it was in 1950s America, cigars and all. We get a small breath of change in the last installment of the trilogy, when young Arkady Darrel works around her father's rules and heads off to follow her grandmother's footsteps searching for the Second Foundation, but it is a very standard story of that type; it does not represent any real subversion or re-imagination of the workings of of society. Everything is entirely predictable, continuing as it did when Asimov wrote. Could psychohistory account for the rise and consequences of intersectional feminism? Can it conceive of a society that takes seriously the work of building itself upon equitable justice?

It is perhaps this frustration that caused me to resonate so deeply when, on Page 3 of The Fifth Season, N. K. Jemisin said of the government and its trappings:

None of these places or people matter, by the way. I simply point them out for context.

No one book will do everything, but can we have a little imagination on what makes society tick? Please?

Throughout Foundation, Asimov also has a complex relationship with the Great Man view of history. Psychohistory itself, and the enactment of the plan, depend heavily on the Great Man Hari Seldon. He has research assistants, but there is little sign of serious collaborators. When the Second Foundation is revealed, however, psychohistory has taken a significantly more collaborative turn. It's a rite of passage for members of the Second Foundation to contribute something to the Seldon Plan, to work out some theorem of history that fills in one of its many remaining holes.

As the history unfolds, Asimov focuses on the men at the heart of the action for each of the inflection points. Psychohistory's inability to model individuals at first seems like it precludes a Great Man view, but yet, at each turn, it is a Man who brings about the shift that psychohistory predicted. Governance of the foundation's society shifts to the mayors; Mayor Hardin solidified and strengthened the office of the Mayor and made it happen. History was destined to flow through the rise of the Traders and Merchant Princes; Hober Mallow made it happen. We're left with an unclear picture of how socio-environmental factors and individuals relate in the balance of influence on history, but the picture is one that is uncomfortably reliant on great men, a reliance I felt went beyond credibility.

Finally, the social science underlying Foundation is exclusively quantitative. There is little room for qualitative work (or if there is room, it is not well-stated), let alone critical analysis.

Other Books

Many years after publishing the trilogy, Asimov wrote two successor books (Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth) and a few prequels.

I can't recommend anything other than the trilogy. Foundation's Edge is a good enough book — it's clunky, but a significant improvement on some of Asimov's earlier attempts at novels. It's an interesting story that explores in much more depth things we learn about the Second Foundation.

But it leaves some questions open, and to answer those questions, one turns to Foundation and Earth.

In my humble opinion, Foundation and Earth is one of those rare books that retroactively makes other books worse. In his later career, Asimov was working to unify his sci-fi worlds (Robot, Empire, and Foundation) into a single, coherent universe. Connecting Foundation and Empire works well enough, but the way Foundation and Earth connects them to the Robot stories I found profoundly unsatisfying. Recasting the origin of psychohistory and the Seldon Plan so that they were really the work of telepathic robot R. Daneel Olivaw who has been secretly guiding human history across the galaxy from his secret base on the moon for 20–50K years, instead of a scientific discovery we could roll with as a premise, left a pretty bad taste in my mouth and stripped the wonder I experienced when I first read Foundation. So I prefer to pretend they do not exist, and enjoy the trilogy on its own.

(I haven't read the prequels at all — Asimov wrote them after Foundation and Earth, so I can't see how they wouldn't be predicated on the Robot connection I didn't like.)

Conclusion

I first read Foundation in grad school, at a time when I was beginning to think more about the import of social science on my understanding of the world and my work as a computer scientist. To read sci-fi that grabbed a social science premise head-on and ran with it was thrilling, and helped me sharpen some of my thinking about how the science I was learning interacted with life. It was also a series that John enjoyed, if my memory serves, and the time in which I read it was the time I was really starting to have productive discussions about this science-life interaction with him. Some of my fondness may well be a result of that context and impact, rather than any intrinsic merit of the trilogy. I don't particularly care.

It's unimaginative in problematic ways. It's got holes you can drive a visi-sonor delivery truck through. But I expect I'll read it again a few more times, and dearly love the way in which the story unfolds through little painted windows. I appreciate literature that gives a window on a much larger story, and in that respect, Foundation delivers.

I hope this won't be the last of these I do! I'm going to aim for writing them on Sundays for a while; we'll see if that's regular, or more of an intermittent Sunday activity. Not making any promises. But I hope to write one of them about my new favorite trilogy.


  1. I'm trying to avoid terms here that bring value judgements, like ‘pure’ or ‘hard’. This kind of sci-fi is no better or worse than any other; it's just one kind and purpose.