Plotting psychohistory

Isaac Asimov Forward the Foundation 
Bantam 1994

Hari Seldon plots
psychohistory while plots
threaten its future

I remember reading the original Foundation trilogy in the 70s, followed (or possibly preceded) by listening to Hari Seldon’s vision as recounted in the BBC radio dramatisation. I wasn’t totally convinced by Asimov’s psychohistory plot device then, but accepted that this was a reflection of a growing tendency to try to more accurately predict what was coming up in the future, whether in the markets, in technological or manufacturing trends or in developments in popular culture. Mix in some mathematics, add a bit of sociology, make allowances for random events and the broad sweep of future history is there to peruse.

However, having by then already read Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come and Stapleden’s Last and First Men and realising that fictional prediction becomes more and more adrift with reality the further into the imagined future it proceeds, I was sceptical then; and remain so even now, especially as we seem to be living in a world where the present has been overtaken by an accelerating technological future which has arrived almost before it’s expected. So I didn’t really buy into Seldon’s psychohistory though I readily accepted it for the sake of a promising narrative.

I thought it now time to revisit the trilogy and its subsequent sequels and prequels and chanced upon the previously unread Forward the Foundation. In this Hari Seldon is busy developing both the principles of psychohistory and the means of projecting the course of future history; in a series of flash-forwards (the outcome of the novel’s original serial publication) we learn a bit about his successes and vicissitudes, his family and colleagues, his friends and enemies, the environment in which he researches his life’s work, and the planned establishment of the Foundations upon which the future re-establishment of a Galactic Empire will be built. We gain insights into what it feels to be Hari Seldon growing old, worn down by the deaths of nearest and dearest, disappointed by setbacks, confronted by suspicion, despairing at societal breakdown; and we intuit that this is increasingly a self-portrait by Asimov, who died in 1992, the year before publication.

It is a sad story because of the picture of increasing senility that it paints and because it parallels the author’s career, but it is not particularly impelling as a piece of fiction despite Asimov’s unenfeebled narrative facility and regardless of its episodic nature. On the other hand it is an optimistic final novel looking forward, as it were, to the genesis of the original Foundation novels begun a half-century earlier, and integrated as it is into his various invented worlds of Robots, Empire and Foundation.

I was pleased to have finished Forward the Foundation (a pun, this, which can be read as both a rallying cry and as Foreword, a Preface to the Foundation series), at the very least for its introductory qualities, but less sure that it was essential reading. And I’m always suspicious of novels like this which, though seeming to be classic SF, in fact drift dangerously close into pure fantasy waters with plot devices like ESP and psychokinesis which smack of magic, pure and simple.

Review first published May 2012, and here slightly edited

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2 thoughts on “Plotting psychohistory

  1. Interesting that you should mention that fantasy/magic crossover from SF. Reflect, though, that a great deal of what we have as commonplace in today’s world would justly have merited the same criticism even fifty years ago. Telepathy and ESP in particular may have failed all tests using ‘Scientific Method’, but sufficient instances keep occurring to make it feasible that these will be the scientific facts of tomorrow.

  2. I largely agree with you (don’t I nearly always, Col!) — there’s that now commonplace concept that what would have been magic to our forebears we take for granted now; from the Wright Brothers to landing on the moon was a mere half century or so, and in both our own lifetimes (we’re that old!) we’ve moved from the miracles of aerogrammes and telegrams to instant messaging and media where thousands of miles mean virtually nothing (hence this conversation).

    We may individually quibble about — so far — unprovables like ESP and the like, but I can still retain wonder over synchronicities and experiences that seem to have no rational explanation. Whatever genre it is good fiction likewise speaks of both the external and the internal, that excites awe of nature and the universe and everything and also reveals aspects of human nature that inform our own being and our relationships.

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