Books / Reviews

The Backlist: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

Isaac Asimov_1951_Foundation

by Levi C. Byers

Isaac Asimov could predict the future. Or at least that’s what it seemed like when fans dug up his essay from 1964 in which he imagined visiting a World’s Fair in 2014. Although the essay can be cherry-picked for inaccurate guesses, there are some stunning predictions about population growth, sight-sound communications, and mechanized labor that solidly reflect facets of our modern world. It appears that Asimov, with the aid of a brilliantly scientific and creative mind, far outshone the powers of any so-called psychic. But how did he do it?

We can start by looking at Foundation, a 1951 novel that is essentially about forecasting the future using an invented field of study called psychohistory. In the book, this socio-mathematical science can model the behavior of human societies, given that the population size is big enough for broad extrapolations to be drawn. By analyzing statistical trends of the present, a psychohistorian could build on known outcomes of the past in order to map out the future. The “psycho,” of course, refers to the keen understanding of human behavior needed to make this science work. So with the requisite population size, what is really calculated is an entire culture’s psychological behavior, and therefore its likely path into the future.

In Asimov’s novel, a complacent Empire exerts a slowly failing control over several planetary systems, home to billions upon billions of humans—just the massive scale of humanity needed for a brilliant psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, to make a confident forecast. His predictive model shows the core of the Empire crumbling within five centuries, due to “a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity,” so he puts a plan in place to slow the suffering that comes from such a collapse. He persuades the government to sign off on the Foundation, an enclave of scientists working to create the Encyclopedia Galactica (basically a Wikipedia of all human knowledge—another eerie forecast from Asimov) so that scientific findings will not be lost in the fall of civilization.

But this is only the iceberg tip of a plan to save the future a lot of suffering, and multiple twists and turns unfold along the way. The novel, comprised of five interlocking stories, is spread over several generations of characters, each knowingly or unknowingly playing roles as planned by the almost godlike Seldon. Scientists, politicians, princes, traders, and rebels deliver sharp barbs and constantly reveal ulterior motives, as each phase of a precalculated destiny comes to fruition. An economical writer, Asimov knows his way around the human psyche and effortlessly weaves mystery and intrigue, petty motives and grand plans. Much of the book is pure dialogue, but delightful reading at that. The storytelling scope is ambitious for a book that runs under 250 pages, which does cause the crises of the book to get tied up a little too neatly by the patient masterminds who are directing events. The forward momentum sometimes leaves characterization behind a bit (and there is also a woeful lack of female characters, reinforcing the idea that science fiction was an old boys’ club) but it is still a treat to see the plot events unfold.

When asking around for Asimov recommendations, Foundation and the series it spawned seems to come up most often. This story of a civilization in decline is clearly a story about our own. Even before the realities of climate change were known, an increasing population and disregard for resource management were red flags obvious enough to fuel speculation from pioneer science fiction writers. I suspect this work became the core of Asimov’s literary legacy because the author was primarily a man of ideas, and this book bursts with them. It’s impressive, his attempt to outline the broad patterns of human behavior which confound and control all societies, all packaged in a slim, brisk novel that help his urgent philosophies go down a little easier. Come for the story, but stay for the warnings to our time.

Author Daniel Keys Moran said, “It’s very strange writing science fiction in a world that moves as fast as ours does.” Asimov would probably be impressed, frustrated, and challenged with how fast our world moves. He even saw some of it in his mind, as if he was one of the very psychohistorians he put to page. We lowly mortals may not have the power to predict the future, but we do have a starting point to planetary conversation in Isaac Asimov’s works. He continues to comment on our destiny from the grave, and it’s up to us to listen and plan ahead so that we can set an alternate path.

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Levi C. Byers is a contributor to The Stake. You can find him at leviandlaura.wordpress.com and on Twitter @Leviathan_B.

The Backlist features in-depth appreciations of classic books in the science fiction, fantasy, horror, and crime genres. Click for more in the Backlist series.

 

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14 thoughts on “The Backlist: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

  1. The lack of female characters is somewhat ameliorated in the later books in the series, starting with Bayta and then continuing with Arcadia. Asimov also makes it a point to highlight the underlying sexism in many of the ‘advanced’ societies he describes. Which makes me think, Asimov was showing a subtle understanding, and not an indifference towards the status of women in his world.

    Good review. Looking forward to reading more from you :)

    • I was actually going to comment on this in the same way that you did, but you summed it up very well so I felt nothing was more was needed. I think the lack of a true representation of humanity in favor of specific subsets of humanity, in this case being along gender lines, was something that Asimov was subtly indicating as part of the decline.

  2. That’s a good point–that almost all of the main characters were people of power, so maybe it makes sense that they would all be men. I highly doubt Asimov was indifferent toward women at his core, and I look forward to picking up on hints of his gender stances in future books.

  3. Pingback: The Backlist: Isaac Asimov's Foundation | JME

  4. Excellent article. Asimov is still one of my favorite authors. I was just reading his Foundation series the other day, and had noticed many of these very same points. Can’t wait to read more from you!

  5. The Foundation series is not a prediction of the future but a treatment on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. You can read about it if you do a quick online search.

  6. The neat part that you are missing is that Harry seldon was a data scientist. Not only was he predicting the future, but he was doing so via constantly evolving equations (via second foundation) based on data collected at the societal level. This was a revolutionary idea when it became a reality in the early 2000s, and is so common now as to be a cliche.

  7. Actually; Asimov himself said he didn’t write many female characters because; at least at his beginnings; he wasn’t acquinted with many women; so he didn’t know how to write them

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  9. Levi,

    Kudos on your insightful summary, including your statement:

    “We can start by looking at Foundation, a 1951 novel that is essentially about forecasting the future using an invented field of study called psychohistory. In the book, this socio-mathematical science can model the behavior of human societies . . . a psychohistorian could build on known outcomes of the past in order to map out the future. The “psycho,” of course, refers to the keen understanding of human behavior needed to make this science work. So with the requisite population size, what is really calculated is an entire culture’s psychological behavior, and therefore its likely path into the future.”

    Yes, the science of “psychohistory” as envisioned by Asimov was not just a “mathematical individual psychology”, or even just a “mathematical mass psychology” or “mathematical social psychology”.

    It was at least, as you say, a “mathematical cultural psychology”, perhaps even a whole-species “species-psychology” for the [galactic] human species.

    As to your well-appointed call for action — “…we … have a starting point to planetary conversation in Isaac Asimov’s works. He continues to comment on our destiny from the grave, and it’s up to us to listen and plan ahead so that we can set an alternate path.” — I know of, and am now part of, a group which has, for its part, begun that very project, taking Asimov’s message deeply to heart.

    The group is called “Foundation Encyclopedia Dialectica” [F.E.D. for short], with headquarters at “Stars’ End, NY”, and “Terminious, CA”.

    The group has already published portions of its Encyclopedia, including a system of seven “Psychohistorical Equations”, using the new mathematics, discovered by its co-founder, Karl Seldon.

    Graphical renderings of portions of these equations can be reached via the following urls:

    http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Glossary.html

    Equation of Human Ideology/Knowledge Formation(s) —

    Equation of Human-Social Formation(s) —

    Equation of Human-Social Relations —

    Equation of Human-Social Forces —

    — and general introductions are available here —

    http://feddialectics-miguel.blogspot.com/2012/05/fed-psychohistorical-equations.html

    — and, via Karl Seldon’s autobiography, here —

    http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Briefs_files/E._D._Brief_%238,The%20%27A-Brief-iated%27,%20Redacted%20Intellectual%20Autobiography%20of%20Karl%20Seldon,07MAR2014.pdf

    Enjoy!

    Miguel

  10. Levi,

    Kudos on your insightful summary, including your statement:

    “We can start by looking at Foundation, a 1951 novel that is essentially about forecasting the future using an invented field of study called psychohistory. In the book, this socio-mathematical science can model the behavior of human societies . . . a psychohistorian could build on known outcomes of the past in order to map out the future. The “psycho,” of course, refers to the keen understanding of human behavior needed to make this science work. So with the requisite population size, what is really calculated is an entire culture’s psychological behavior, and therefore its likely path into the future.”

    Yes, the science of “psychohistory” as envisioned by Asimov was not just a “mathematical individual psychology”, or even just a “mathematical mass psychology” or “mathematical social psychology”.

    It was at least, as you say, a “mathematical cultural psychology”, perhaps even a whole-species “species-psychology” for the [galactic] human species.

    As to your well-appointed call for action — “…we … have a starting point to planetary conversation in Isaac Asimov’s works. He continues to comment on our destiny from the grave, and it’s up to us to listen and plan ahead so that we can set an alternate path.” — I know of, and am now part of, a group which has, for its part, begun that very project, taking Asimov’s message deeply to heart.

    The group is called “Foundation Encyclopedia Dialectica” [F.E.D. for short], with headquarters at “Stars’ End, NY”, and “Terminious, CA”.

    The group has already published portions of its Encyclopedia, including a system of seven “Psychohistorical Equations”, using the new mathematics, discovered by its co-founder, Karl Seldon.

    Graphical renderings of portions of these equations can be reached via the following urls:

    http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Glossary.html

    Equation of Human Ideology/Knowledge Formation(s) —

    Equation of Human-Social Formation(s) —

    Equation of Human-Social Relations —

    Equation of Human-Social Forces —

    — and general introductions are available here —

    http://feddialectics-miguel.blogspot.com/2012/05/fed-psychohistorical-equations.html

    — and, via Karl Seldon’s autobiography, here —

    http://www.dialectics.org/dialectics/Briefs_files/E._D._Brief_%238,The%20%27A-Brief-iated%27,%20Redacted%20Intellectual%20Autobiography%20of%20Karl%20Seldon,07MAR2014.pdf

    Enjoy!

    Miguel

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  12. Pingback: Foundation | Leviathan, Bound

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