Tuesday, May 28, 2024

First Contact: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

A smug exploration of a rather silly idea that misses an opportunity to convince.

I’d like to start this First Contact with a bit of positioning. I’m not a huge consumer of so-called Golden Era SFF, in large part because my tastes have been formed on more modern books. Modern SFF tends to be written with the understanding that elements such as character arcs, relationships, and perhaps even (stay with me here, I know this is wacky) women have a role in stories. So I am approaching this First Contact project with a bit of pre-judgment in heart. And in my view, that’s fine. These books have been around for a while, and they’ve gotten on just fine without any kind of ostensibly unbiased journalist evaluation from me. No, my goal is to stay sitting exactly where I sit right now, with my modern tastes and 21st-century outlook and expectations of SFF as a field, and report how that background reacts to Foundation by Isaac Asimov.

Please note that I am not taking pain to avoid spoilers the way I would with a review of a more recent book. Y’alls have had 70 years to read it. But in case it’s been sixty years since you refreshed your memory, we’ll start with a brief summary:


An enormous, Galaxy-spanning empire with a population in the quadrillions is on the edge of collapse. But only one man, Hari Seldon, can see it. Seldon has invented a form of probabilistic modeling of historical events and likely future outcomes that he calls psychohistory, and on the strength of this modeling he predicts that the Galactic Empire will fall. He is arrested for his doomsaying, but manages to persuade the government to give him a planet all his own to create an Encyclopedia of all galactic knowledge, which he claims will shorten the catastrophic disruption that will probabilistically-but-also-inevitably ensue when the Empire falls. The book follows the events on this Encyclopedia-creating planetary project, called Foundation, through the next several generations, in a series of vignettes. Each vignette has roughly the same structure:

1. Some challenge or conflict or hardship arises.
2. Hari Seldon has predicted that it would arise.
3. Some very clever people bravely do nothing, resisting the urge of lesser minds to take proactive measures, because they are confident that the correct course of action predicted by Seldon will reveal itself.
4. The clever people are vindicated. Seldon was right, the problem is now solved.

I understand the appeal of this sort of plot structure. Competence porn is attractive, and this book is only competence porn. However, the fact remains that psychohistory strikes me as fundamentally silly, and the one way it could have been turned into something brilliant is underexplored, or else entirely overlooked (I can't figure out which).

The silliness of psychohistory

I’m going to leave aside things like my disbelief in the ability to model so far in the future, because chaos theory and the butterfly effect were not known in 1951. It's not fair to criticize Asimov for being ignorant about sensitive dependence on initials conditions. (Although I will maintain that, even from the perspective of the 1950s, it's hard to get behind a mathematical modeling algorithm that can condense the complexity of a quadrillions-strong Galactic Empire into a mathematical representation that can be evaluated and confirmed or disconfirmed by one guy looking at a pocket calculator.) No, I’ll accept the fictional component of this science fictional concept for now.

But within the domain of its fictional function, psychohistory still doesn’t work. In part, I think Asimov couldn’t decide how difficult he wanted it to be. Quite early on, Seldon explains its principles in the span of a single conversation with a young protege of his, so it’s not like you need to devote your life to it to understand it. And there are quadrillions of people in this galaxy. If only one in a million people are mathematically astute enough to grasp it, that still means we have billions of mathematicians who, in the course of a single conversation, can understand how psychohistory works, confirm that Seldon’s calculations are correct, and buy into his predictions and recommendations not out of blind faith, but out of a firm grounding in the principles of this new discipline.

I’m going to go with that, because the alternative is that psychohistory is so mind-bogglingly complex and hard that only Hari Seldon and a very select few of his proteges can do it. And if that’s the case, then the Galactic Empire went all the way from getting ready to execute Seldon for disloyal speech to giving him a whole-ass planet on only his word, uncorroborated by no one except his own people. And that’s just silly, right? Seldon says he can demonstrate the validity of his predictions ‘only to another mathematician,’ so I'll assume he does, in fact, do so, to the satisfaction of the government. (And, in our era of climate change, major props to the government for believing him and taking his recommended actions!)

So: psychohistory is hard and novel, and Hari Seldon developed it, but it’s not that hard.

Why, then, in later generations on the Foundation, after Seldon’s death, does it become a lost science? We’re told that it’s because records of psychohistory are not included in the Encyclopedia project, and “psychologists” are not included in the starting staff of the project. (That seems a bit rough to the 50 or so staff members who worked with Seldon on his doomsaying predictions. Do they all get left behind? Do they get new jobs? Did Seldon write them a reference before heading off?) This is clearly an intentional decision, and also not one that is ever explained.

But the thing is, once something has been discovered, it’s not hard to rediscover it. And remember, psychohistory is not that hard to understand. You can confirm its correctness over the course of a single conversation if you have the right mathematical background. What’s more, the entire existence of the Foundation, along with its tradition of rigorous education and preservation of knowledge, is founded (hah) upon the validity of psychohistory. And not one of these brilliant knowledge-workers has ever thought, ‘Hmmm, I wonder how our founding discipline actually worked?’ No one has managed to rediscover its principles and rederive its formulae? That seems a bit off.

The missed opportunity of the psychohistorical religion

Of course, one reason no one tries to redevelop psychohistory is because it has taken on some sort of religious status, such that questioning it is taboo. Certainly in later generations of the Foundation, people start saying things like, ‘By Seldon!’ and showing a wildly blind faith in following ‘Seldon’s Plan,’ exactly like it is some religious creed. That’s actually rather a neat idea. And, in fact, it has a fascinating resonance with the relations between the Foundation and its surrounding, declining planetary neighbours. Consider, for example, the planet Anacreon. They start showing signs of wanting to do some conquering on the Foundation as the fall of galactic civilization proceeds, until the Foundation manages to placate them with their more advanced technology. But because the Foundation is badly outnumbered by Anacreon, they don’t want to let the Anacreon people become technological equals. To forestall this, they share their technology by couching it as religious miracle. The Foundation educates the young people of Anacreon, but only ‘empirically’—i.e., they teach them to work the technology by rote memorization, rather than proper understanding of nuclear physics. Anacreon technicians can press the buttons, but they don’t get to learn the principles behind the machines, and cannot repair them if they get damaged. Indeed, the Foundation explicitly teaches them that this is a divine power, that the machines work by miracles.

(I will skip over, once again, the fact that an ENTIRE PLANET full of well-maintained, working machines, with a population of smart young people being brought TO THE FOUNDATION ITSELF to learn how to work them, is probably not going to take too long to rediscover the principles of nuclear physics, no matter how sequestered the Anacreon youth are. I will simply accept that, in this world of Asimov’s, large populations of people do not rediscover fundamental principles of science, no matter how much opportunity, education, resources, and motivation they have at their disposal.)

So, the poor benighted people do not know the principles of the scientific discipline that governs their existence, and must lead their lives unquestioningly according to the rote instructions of their religious leaders. Do you see it? Do you see the parallels between nuclear theory, a religious miracle bestowed by the almighty Foundation upon unquestioning Anacreons; and psychohistory, a religious miracle bestowed by almighty Hari Seldon upon the unquestioning Foundation? Is that not very neat and cool? I think so!

However, I do not think that Asimov thought so. In fact, I find myself wondering if he saw the parallels at all. When I write them down, it seems far too obvious not to notice, but when I was actually reading the book, all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of smugness: ‘Psychohistory and Seldon smart and good! Religious belief dumb and bad!’ Over and over again, the plot offers us examples of how Seldon’s predictions are absolutely correct, and how the people in the Foundation are correct to follow the Seldon Plan and have faith and stay the course, and they will come out on top. (I have heard rumours that this falls apart in later books, which is fine, but since I did not read those books, I cannot comment further on them.)

There’s more I could say. I could discuss the low-hanging fruit of women, and how a quick Ctrl+F for the word ‘she’ returned exactly one hit between pages 1 and 131, and that one is referring to a planetary government, rather than to a person. I could mention the repeated claims that Seldon can predict only general tendencies rather than specific events—except for when he correctly predicts that a particular person will be arrested on a particular day. I could question how useful psychohistory actually is, if the people who govern a planet according to Seldon’s plan must argue amongst themselves about what action to take or not to take in order to preserve the outcomes of his plan. Since the plan operates on broad tendencies rather than individual actions, shouldn't it not matter? If his plan breaks every time a particular governmental official does or does not do something, how robust is it, actually, across centuries and millennia?

So that brings us back to faith again. I have difficulty believing that Seldon can predict 100 years in the future regarding the fate of the Foundation, let alone 1000 for the entire galaxy. But he sure can make Foundationers think he can, and so they act (or don’t act) according to their faith in his pseudoscience. And to the extent that the plot bears out the decisions of these believers of this book, it might just as well be religious miracle as scientific ‘psychohistory.’ If the former —if it is a true supernatural miracle— then Asimov is being really rather brilliant. But if the latter, if we're supposed to accept that psychohistory is real, then Asimov just thinks he’s being clever while actually spinning a very silly story about a very silly pseudoscience. And I fear it’s the latter we’ve got on our hands.



• Very clever men being clever
• No women
• Competence porn

Nerd coefficient: 4/10, not very good.

Reference: Asimov, Isaac. Foundation [Harper Collins, 1995/first published Gnome Press, 1951].

CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative