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The Foundation Trilogy ()


Amazon.com Top 100 Books of the Millenium


I went into economics because I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, in which social scientists save galactic civilization, and that’s what I wanted to be.
-Paul Krugman


The Foundation Trilogy, one of the touchstones of Science Fiction, began as a magazine serial in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in November 1949.  Respective stories were gathered together into the three volumes: Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953).  Finally, the whole shebang was published as The Foundation Trilogy in 1961 and in 1966, won a Hugo Award as the best science fiction series of all time.  I don't know that this last is still true, but it is certainly one of the seminal works in the history of Science Fiction and remains extraordinarily influential.

Oliver Morton, in The New Yorker of May 17, 1999, had an excellent essay about the books wherein he pointed out that Asimov is really responsible for the concept, so prevalent in science fiction, of the Galactic Empire.  He particularly demonstrates the debt that the Star Wars series owes to Asimov's vision, a vision which apparently in turn owes a debt to Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire Asimov had read twice as a young man.

He also draws one important distinction; where the main foundation of the Star Wars series is speed (iconified by the image of the accelerating starship), the Foundation series is built upon size.  It is the epic scope, spanning thousands of years and worlds and incorporating billions of people, that really made Foundation so groundbreaking.  It enabled Asimov to apply historical themes to a genre that, virtually by definition, lacked history.

All of this is certainly true, but it strikes me that the epic scope as utilized by Asimov presents a political/philosophical problem.  Asimov posited a future science of psychohistory, a discipline which would bring scientific cause and effect certainty to the field of human affairs.  The Trilogy traces the fall and reemergence of a Galactic Empire with the entire process having been predicted by and, to some extent guided by, Hari Seldon, the Founder of Psychohistory.  This premise manages to combine two of the worst ideas that human's have ever had--first, that history is deterministic and follows some kind of iron clad pattern; second, that there is any merit to psychology, particularly  as a predictive tool when applied to large populations over a lengthy period of time.

The whole thing is sort of creepy in so far as it dismisses free will and the impact of ideas and individuals on man's development.  The quest for discernible patterns and laws in human existence is nothing new, most religions are predicated on the revelation of such hidden patterns.  And it is natural for scientists to be attracted to the idea that there are certain universal laws that will eventually explain our behavior, everything from why we love or why we kill to why I just typed the letter r.  But I for one, do not believe that our lives are predetermined.  In fact, I find such an idea pretty bleak and antihuman.

I still recommend the series, particularly in light of the influence it has had on the genre and for the massive scope of Asimov's vision, but, for me at least, the Freudian & Hegelian overtones are a little bit off-putting.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Comments:

Every man changes the future every moment either with his action or inaction. "Who controls the past' ran the Party slogan, 'controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."- George Orwell 1984

- Paul

- May-26-2007, 19:11

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They believe that they can determine the behavior of others.

- oj

- Sep-23-2005, 08:09

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He (Seldon or Mule or other) is not "in control of the future"; however, he and others do try to.

This is not determinism, but covert manipulation. If "the free will of others [are being] trumped" in the Foundation series, it is not by an inevitable destiny, but by a calculated effort, whose outcome is far from being certain.

One's choosing of anothers behavior can't be equated to determinism; determinism would be independent of anybody's choosing.

- juntel

- Sep-23-2005, 00:37

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Except that the idea that one man could tweak history into channels of his choosing is likewise determninistic. If he's in control of the future then the free will of others has been trumped.

- oj

- Mar-30-2005, 22:22

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Juntel hits the key error on Mr. Judd's part in the review. In fact, Seldon himself altered future history by setting up the Foundations, thereby dramatically shortening the coming interregnum. Therefore, from the very start, even with psycho-history, the future is still mutable through the actions of a single person, even one without psychic powers. And of course, as mentioned, the Second Foundation is required precisely because psycho-history isn't completely determinative and Seldon's plan requires some active agent to tweak the currents of society in to the proper channels.

- Alan M. Carroll

- Mar-30-2005, 22:13

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Well, in SciFi you'll always find authors who will invent (or re-invent) devices from which to tell their tale, how impossible these devices might be. As readers we have to accept these teleporting devices, nano-tech-thingies, positronic gizmos and whatever the author wants us as rules of his/her game, or simply let the book unread.

I don't think Azi himself believed much in his 'psycho-history', but it's a good device, and such a non-tech non-hardware device in SciFi isn't usual, and as such it was bold, however (in)credible it might be.

But let's remember the 'limits' this psychohistory needed: a population of several thousnads of bilions was a minimum, and all of whom ignored psychohistory itself. Even the peeps on Terminus (the Seldon-founded techno-savvy colony) didn't know how to use psycho-history: only the hidden Second Foundationers did.

And one individual, if important and influential enough, could totally alter the predictions of psycho-history, showing the fragility of this science. And one such person did come by: the one that was called the Mule.

And this is where the limitedness of psycho-history had to be compensated for by the hidden second foundation. Or, in other words, psycho-history, in the end, can't really predict absolutely; manipulations had to be made, with all the dangers that can come from this.

So I don't think Asimov really "dismisses free will and the impact of ideas and individuals on man's development". Maybe psychohistory seems to do that, but the fact that Seldon created the second foundation in the story shows his own doubts, hence the need of men pullings some strings here and there, just to keep the plan in shape. His way of putting something human back in some bleak mathematical model.

But in no way do I see psychohistory as something saying individuals' lives were predetermined; and in fact it was totally blind to the individual level: psycho-history's 'history' was not the history of individuals, but of whole society's, or even amalgams of thousands of societies. Like trying to predict a cloud's movement in the sky without trying to look at individual water and air molecules: you can do it for some time, but very imperfectly for long time durations.

So the rule of the game in reading the Foundation Trilogy is to accept the premise that someone in the long future (year 10 000 or more) managed to construct such a science combining mathematics and psychology/sociology of those future days. With all the imperfections even such advanced future knowledge will have.

A good read, brings out many discussions, no matter how naive some passages/ideas can be at some time.

juntel

- juntel

- Jun-17-2004, 02:49

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"Freud's theories may have been nonsense, but he did popularize the concept of the subconscious, without which the actions of historical figures are incomprehensibly identical"

Doesn't the identicality of their behavior put paid to the notion that psychology matters?

- oj

- Feb-08-2004, 13:26

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Sunday, February 8, 2004, 0955 hrs. pst.

Dear Orrin,

One never knows when reading pages on sites like this if it is other than internet archeology. But, in the hope that you are both still alive, (Orrin and "the other brother", that is), I commend you on a neat precis of the Foundation Series, as far as it goes. You seem overly creeped out by the psychohistory conceit and reveal your own prejudice against all things psychological. Unless you are actually too young to own the beard with which you are depicted, it must have occurred to you that human behavior is dictated by the subconscious, as revealed through repitition as the hallmark of human history. Freud's theories may have been nonsense, but he did popularize the concept of the subconscious, without which the actions of historical figures are incomprehensibly identical.

Cordially, Yogi

- Yogi Boubimbondorsky

- Feb-08-2004, 12:59

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