It is a truly daunting task to try and write a blog post about an utterly unique and undisputed classic of literature like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (1951). On the other hand, it is almost impossible to not write about such a book after reading it, considering the torrent of ideas it bombards and infuses you with. I’ve never gotten very deep into science fiction in my life, and in recent years I’ve been trying to correct that by hunting down the classics: Foundation does not disappoint.
Originally a series of short stories that was turned into a novel, Foundation chronicles 150 years of history of an organization called, well, the Foundation, which has been created in a remote corner of the galaxy to preserve the history and knowledge of humanity and restore it after what amounts to a galactic Dark Age.
The book starts in the year 0 F.E. (“Foundation Era”), the year that mathematician and psychologist Hari Seldon creates the Foundation. Seldon is the pioneering founder of a new branch of science called psychohistory, a field that uses advanced mathematics to accurately predict the behavior of large populations of people, and is able to make reliable predictions far, far into the future.
Seldon’s mathematics have demonstrated, with almost perfect certainty, that the 12,000 year old Galactic Empire (consisting of millions of inhabited worlds) is destined to collapse within 300 years, leading to a period of chaos, violence and ignorance that will last for 30,000 years. This horrible fate is too far along to be avoided, but it can be shorted dramatically. Seldon begins to create the Foundation, which will preserve humanity’s collected knowledge and reduce the length of the Dark Age to a mere 1,000 years. The officials of the Empire aren’t particularly keen to have a doomsayer living on their capital world, so they banish Seldon and his 100,000 workers and families to a remote, resource-poor world called Terminus that lies on the edge of the galaxy.
However, things are not as bleak as they appear. Seldon anticipated the banishment, and even manipulated events in order to force it to happen. Seldon has a plan for the Foundation that is more intricate than anyone realizes, and he has planned out its entire future using psychohistory. He cannot share this information, however, as that knowledge would make his models unpredictable and likely change them for the worse. He must rely on those leaders that come after him to overcome the numerous existential threats to the Foundation that he has predicted, which become known as “Seldon crises.” But how can a weak, resource-starved community with no army fend off the violent monarchs and warlords that rise as the Empire collapses?
Foundation consists of five chapters — The Psychohistorians, The Encyclopedists, The Mayors, The Traders, The Merchant Princes — that tell the early history of the Foundation and the trials it faces. The first chapter, as noted, describes Seldon’s forming of the society. Three of the other chapters feature Seldon crises; the remaining chapter, though it is not obvious at first, details events that will lead to a Seldon crisis.
As I have already said, Foundation was originally written as a collection of short stories, much like I, Robot (1950), the first book in another of Asimov’s classic sci-fi series. The stories in Foundation form a much more coherent whole, however, as they form key moments in a fictional history. One would hardly think that a book that features a different protagonist in each chapter would not be compelling, especially when it is a book that focuses almost entirely on politics and economics. Asimov is a truly gifted writer, however, and the story is never boring. I spent two hours at lunch the other day because I couldn’t put the book down until I was finished!
There are so many amazing things to say about Foundation. It is, to me, clearly a celebration of science and reason, as well as an ode to thinking strategically over long time scales. Problems are solved using this long-term planning, and practically solve themselves, without bloodshed. Indeed, as one Foundation member notably says, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” And he is proven right, as the novel contains what I consider to be one of the greatest and most brutal examples of pwning in science fiction history. The protagonist gets to literally sit and sip wine as plans, implemented decades ago, come to fruition and wreak havoc — without warfare — on a deadly enemy of the Foundation. The ability to use foresight to avoid violence is a recurring theme throughout the book.
There is a fascinating irony about the heroics in Foundation. Both the crises that hit the organization, and the solutions, have been planned and predicated years earlier by Seldon’s psychohistory; often, the most significant action a leader can take is to simply let events take their natural course until their is only one possible solution left, which is almost certainly the solution Seldon foresaw.
Asimov was obviously quite knowledgeable in the way science is done, and I can’t help but wonder if this odd type of heroics was his way of gently taking the piss out of the idea of “great men of science.” Though we regularly celebrate the achievements of groundbreaking researchers like Albert Einstein, it is less acknowledged that many of the discoveries of such great people were practically inevitable at the time. Einstein’s special relativity, for instance, was preceded by important work on the speed of light and spacetime by scientists and mathematicians like Lorentz, Minkowski, and Riemann. That isn’t to say that Einstein’s work was not hugely and fundamentally important, but to say that science is a cultural, societal phenomenon and progress with inevitability. In Foundation, we see that those leaders that arise during each of the Seldon crises are fulfilling a role that had been built up by social and psychological forces far greater than them.
Speaking of Seldon and his psychohistory, Asimov has a clear inspiration for it, which is even overtly discussed in the book: statistical mechanics.
“Because even Seldon’s advanced psychology was limited. It could not handle too many independent variables. He couldn’t work with individuals over any length of time; any more than you could apply kinetic theory of gases to single molecules. He worked with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only blind mobs who do not possess foreknowledge of the results of their own actions.”
Statistical mechanics is the branch of physics that deals with the behavior of large systems of interacting particles, such as the constantly-in-motion atoms and molecules of a solid, liquid or gas. It is not possible to track or predict the behavior of individual molecules, as the interactions between all the particles is far too complicated, but it is possible to use statistical methods to describe the behavior of the gas as a whole. From these models, much of the bulk behavior of liquids and gasses can be predicted with certainty: for example, the phase transition of water from liquid to solid when the temperature hits 0° C.
In Asimov’s psychohistory, the essentially random motions and interactions of people are modeled statistically to predict the overall behavior of civilizations. Though it is a fictional concept, Asimov gives us a lot to chew over with it, both scientifically and philosophically. For example: we have noted that Seldon had to keep his plans secret from people, lest their knowledge change the results. Is this Asimov’s way of saying that people have free will, given sufficient knowledge? Or does the concept even make sense in this context? I don’t know, but it’s fascinating to think about it.
There are eerie parallels between some of the ignorant politicians in Foundation and those currently serving in the U.S. government. It seems that Asimov was almost doing a bit of psychohistory himself. For instance, consider this dialogue between Seldon and skeptical officials of the Empire, after he explains his prediction of the fall:
Q: You do not consider your statement a disloyal one?
A: No, sir. Scientific truth is beyond loyalty and disloyalty.
Q: You are sure that your statement represents scientific truth?
A: I am.
Q: On what basis?
A: On the basis of the mathematics of psychohistory.
Q: Can you prove that this mathematics is valid?
A: Only to another mathematician.
Q: (with a smile) Your claim then is that your truth is of so esoteric a nature that it is beyond the understanding of a plain man. It seems to me that truth should be clearer than that, less mysterious, more open to the mind.
Replace “the fall” with “climate change” and “psychohistory” with “climate science,” and this might be a conversation between a scientist and a Republican congressman. This is a common tactic of people who denigrate science politically: imply that any “true” statement should be so simple and obvious as to be understood by anyone. It is such a strategy that led Senator James Inhofe to bring a snowball onto the Senate floor in 2015 as an argument against global warming.
Or consider this other question asked by a nobleman, after visiting the Foundation’s extensive encyclopedia-building operation:
“This is all very interesting,” he said, “but it seems a strange occupation for grown men. What good is it?”
GOP congressmen have made it a regular hobby to cherry-pick research projects, seeking out those that look frivolous, and make an example of them. You may recall the “shrimp on a treadmill” scandal that turned out to not be a scandal at all, at least from the science point of view. Very recently, Representative Lamar Smith has been targeting climate scientists for harassment, an even more sinister tactic that shows deep disrespect for science.
But, oddly enough in these dark political times, Asimov’s Foundation gives me hope, too. Its paean to foresight and long-term planning suggests that, even in the direst circumstances, things can be turned around. In the short-term, we may lose rights and freedoms, and we may not personally see it return in our own lifetimes, but it can be regained. It will take much collective effort to fix what has been broken, but Asimov makes me think that it can be done — and he even shows somewhat how to do it.
But enough about politics! If you haven’t read Foundation, you should. It is an amazing novel with a very compelling story and profound ideas. I highly recommend it.
Foundation was followed by a pair of sequels that turn it into a trilogy, and much later he added a pair of prequel novels and a pair of sequels. I will definitely be reading at the very least the full trilogy.