Evolution or revolution

Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books
The planet Trantor: Fred Gambino Foundation trilogy cover art for Voyager Books

Isaac Asimov Foundation Voyager 1995 (1951)

‘A great psychologist such as [Hari] Sheldon could unravel human emotions and human reactions sufficiently to be able to predict broadly the historical sweep of the future.’ — Salvor Hardin in Part II: The Encyclopedists, Foundation

I was first introduced to Asimov’s Foundation trilogy in the 1970s when listening to the BBC Radio dramatisations (probably in 1977 when the 1973 series was rebroadcast). Though I at first liked the concept of psychohistory which underpins the storylines I became less enamoured of it in time after reading other fictional future histories, such as H G Wells’ 1933 classic The Shape of Things to Come which, though it successfully predicted war (beginning in 1940 and ending ten years later), thereafter got it spectacularly wrong in prophesying the demise of religion, the rise of a global benevolent despotism and a subsequent universal utopia. If short-term prediction (albeit by just one individual) could go so wrong, what chance another fiction-writer postulating any more reliably a future history in millennia to come?

And yet — as I had hoped — a re-read, even one as long delayed as this, has helped me revise some of my first hasty opinions.

found1The Empire, based on a galaxy that’s neither a long time ago (it’s in our future) nor far, far away (it’s our own Milky Way, of which we are a part), has its capital on Trantor. This is a planet which has been completely covered by an exoskeleton of metal, on which nothing of its original surface can be seen. From this planet psychologist Hari Seldon is by his own deliberate machinations banished to the periphery, with a one-way ticket to the ominous-sounding planet Terminus. Here, with a select workforce and their families, he founds a community ostensibly dedicated to creating the Encyclopedia Galactica, a record of past and present history. In reality it is a foundation to also monitor the history that is to come, a foundation enshrining the science of psychohistory. Why the self-imposed banishment? It is for the Foundation even after his own demise to escape the worst of the Empire’s death-throes, the decline and fall of which he had foreseen from his calculations.

What Foundation does is chronicle the events leading up to successive so-called Seldon Crises. These are moments when evolution could so easily give way to revolution, when co-existence could lead to violent overthrow and confident statistical forecasts be torn to shreds. But these crisis points — typically when a hologram of Hari Seldon himself appears to an assembled company on Terminus — can’t be anticipated or they could have what today’s psychologists call the observer effect: where the actual act of observation has an effect on what is being observed, potentially skewing and therefore invalidating the results.

Strangely enough, the anticipation of what is felt to be a coming Seldon Crisis is enough for one man — and in this mid 20th-century novel it is inevitably a man — to seek to resolve the developing situation through non-violent means, because violent conflict could jeopardise the existence of the Foundation. Today we might call this crisis management or conflict resolution; then (and we’re talking now of a 20th-century vision of the future) the saviour of the situation would act the Great Man role as defined by Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, though re-defined by later writers. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” Carlyle declared, and apart from the brief appearance of two token females this is essentially a cigar-chomping men-only universe. The emphasis on peaceful resolution may well reflect Asimov’s reaction to the war raging in Europe when he initially began Foundation as four related short stories between 1941 and 1942; “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” is a phrase much in evidence here, uttered either explicitly or implicitly.

Hari Seldon with his sidekick Gaal Dornick initiates the move from Trantor to Terminus in the first part ‘The Psychohistorians’. Salvor Hardin dominates proceedings in ‘The Encyclopedists’ set fifty years later on Terminus; his name  betrays his role, Salvor being a play on Salvatore meaning ‘saviour’, and incidentally also sharing some syllabic elements of Hari Seldon’s name. Thirty years on and Hardin is still in evidence in ‘The Mayors’, dealing with nearby planets like Anacreon, all breakaway kingdoms from the Galactic Empire and all jostling for power. ‘The Traders’ focuses on Limmar Ponyets, a pragmatic trader who takes as his motto one of Salvor Hardin’s epigrams, Never let your morals prevent you doing what is right! when dealing with religious superstition. And with ‘The Merchant Princes’ we come to trader Hober Mallow who, when contact with the Galactic Empire is re-established, realises as the next Seldon Crisis approaches the core principles that psychohistory is based on: “Seldon crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweep of economics and sociology.” This is close to later criticism of Carlyle’s Great Men of History postulate: Mallow accepts that “the solutions to the various crises must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time” — in other words, individuals arise to take advantage of given situations, not to steer history on a new course of their own choosing.

How much of this Asimov actually subscribed to, and how much he made up for the purposes of his fiction (reportedly the Foundation series was his creative response to Gibbons’ Decline and Fall) I must leave to scholars. It’s enough that since I first read the original trilogy I am in a better position to appreciate the realpolitik of Asimov’s puppet heroes rather than look for the expected closures of traditional narrative arcs. Developments since the early 1940s (when most of Foundation was written and published as four separate magazine short stories) and, inevitably, the rise of super-computers have meant that statistical modelling of systems (such as weather patterns) have become exponentially more sophisticated, so that Asimov’s scenarios projected tens of millennia into the future seem just a little more plausible. Given that scant decades later Salvor Hardin surmised that this psychohistory could “unravel human emotions and human reactions” [my emphasis] — enough to forecast precisely how social and economic conditions would change in years to come — a super-computer way beyond our imaginings could well number-crunch its way through to anticipating how and when crises would arise and the resulting resolutions.

Asimov trained as a chemist, later migrating to biochemistry. Commentators have compared his psychohistory concept with the workings of Boyle’s Law, which defined the mathematical relationships between the volume of a gas, the pressure exerted by that gas in a given space and its temperature. It’s a short step from predicting how a very large number of gas molecules may react in an environment to imagining how quintillions of human beings in all the inhabitable worlds of just one galaxy might interact over time. As a character (in Foundation and Empire) suggests, “Psychohistory dealt not with man, but with man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a rebound of a billiard ball.”

But there was to be a fly in the ointment. “The reaction of one man could be forecast by no known mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again.” Seldon, by basing his psychohistory on humans, could not and did not take into account those who might be either non-human (that is, those with alien intelligences working with totally different mental processes) or advanced human, whose abilities had evolved beyond normal human capabilities. (Nor, for that matter, could psychohistory predict cosmic events such as, for example, catastrophic meteor strikes.) But this is matter that is to be examined in the Foundation sequels.


Reading Challenge category: a book set in the future. Way, way in the future, about 12000 years or so.

These days, the discipline of psychohistory is different: psychohistorians look to the past, not the future, interpreting history through the psychology of the individuals and of society living then.


23 thoughts on “Evolution or revolution

  1. It is good to be reminded of that series, which I guzzled avidly many decades ago.
    The thing remaining most in the forefront of my Asimov memories, though, is the Robot series. I admired the Three Laws, and was awed at the way he created situations where those foolproof laws proved inadequate.

    1. I never finished the first in the Robot series when I tried it a year or three back, Leslie; it may have been the secondhand copy falling apart that did it for me, or it could have been the oh-so-dated vision of robots as clunking metal tanks. But I did admire the concept of the Three Laws and the logical paradoxes they could tie you up in.

  2. Never read any Asimov. When I read more sci-fi, I thought many of his books sounded rather heavy going and that wasn’t what I was looking for. Amazing how some sci-fi can deal so well with our own preoccupations/ issues and predict future ones

    1. That’s the strength of good SF, I think, its capacity to deal with big themes like ethics and the limits of technology and — the essence of all Humanities — the place of both the human race and its individuals in the grand scheme of things. If scheme there is.

      It’s interesting going back to a classic ‘hard SF’ author like Asimov and seeing how human frailty still lies at the heart of much future scientific and technological imaginings. And even more interesting to note that in this macho literature one could misquote Hamlet and declare instead “Frailty, thy name is Man!”

      1. His writing has always sounded rather masculine – ideas more than people, if that’s not too much of a cliche. Not sure he’ll be added to my TBR shelf anytime soon 🙂

        1. No, I accept that on balance women are people-persons and men more thing-persons, but these are only the two ends of a broad spectrum. I don’t mind the occasional hard SF novel, but I’d prefer a more human-oriented bit of speculative fiction by an author like Ursula Le Guin.

          1. It’s funny talking to my son about his freinds – all 11 – 12 years old. I’ll ask ‘how’s so and so finding his new school?’ Shrug. ‘How did whatsit enjoy his six months in America?’ Shrug. They just don’t ask. They live in the moment of a computer game or going to the cinema together and that’s it. Mind you, they tend to be less catty than girls … I’ve only recently heard of Ursula Le Guin – is she good?

            1. Thinking back to my own youth, three things strike me.
              1. Testosterone-charged boys tend to be more about action than about reflection, and so don’t really want to engage in analysis — even or especially when it’s about themselves.
              2. That secret place, where one’s doubts and fears and incipient guilts reside, that’s a fortress to be guarded against all-comers and particularly one’s parents. By seeing yourself as a besieged castle you look ever outwards, rarely inwards to examine the seething thoughts and contradictions. Parental interest is seen as strategic feints, probing the weaknesses in your defence, sometimes feared as a massed frontal assault with fierce questioning along the lines of ‘Why did you do such-and-such?’
              3. Being a teenage boy is discovering not just your individuality after years being part of a family group but that you are alone in the world, that you have to quickly develop a philosophy, personal opinions and judgements on what impinges on your everyday life, or else your individuality will be submerged in the great mysterious Sea of Life. Some boys never lose that sense of self against the world.

              Does that make any sense? Hope so!

            2. It’s a very interesting and articulate insight into the male psyche – thank you! I think my son does feel besieged sometimes, feels he has to argue and resist us, even when he’s not sure why he’s doing it. Sometimes, you can see the confusion he feels in his own actions clearly written on his face.
              I remember some of those feelings – those and out and out rage! – very clearly. I don’t envy him – I wouldn’t want to go through my teens again for any money 🙂

            3. Ha! No. Amazing so many of us survive the process reasonably intact. Maybe it’s all part of the Survival of the Fittest idea – if you can make it through your teens alive …

  3. Oh, what a thoughtful analysis! I have no recollection of the Foundation series at all. In fact, I think I didn’t venture deep into it except maybe reading the first two.

    On the other hand, I remember devouring ALL the Robot books in my teen years. The three laws of robotics! And I just loved the robot psychologist, Susan-something I think?, who was so good at cleaning up all the mess that Asimov’s robot characters led to.

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Juhi, much appreciated! It’s funny, isn’t it, you’re not the first person here to prefer the Robot books to the Foundation series and here’s me stalled on the first of them! Must give them another go in the near future.

  4. Pingback: Wednesday Word Tangle: Cupid, Psyche and sex the Greek way | Word Shamble

    1. ‘Psyche’ is a great word, isn’t it, giving rise to words like psychologist, psychiatrist and, er, psychopath. Must explore more fully sometime … (And thanks for the pingback!)

      The Cupid and Psyche legend is a 2000-year-old Beauty and the Beast tale — I liked the version in ‘The Golden Ass’ (good readable translation in Penguin translated by Robert Graves, if you’re interested).

  5. I started with Asimov’s Rocky Starr kids books and devoured virtually everything he wrote well into my 20s. I remember enjoying the Foundation trilogy more on a second reading, but I still love Fantastic Voyage best of all – his cheesiest perhaps, but it’s the one that stuck, over The Naked Sun which is a robot one and also rather fine.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Annabel, sounds like I may have to start a new TBR pile! I remember seeing ‘The Fantastic Voyage’ at the cinema in the 60s with Donald Pleasance, if I’m not mistaken. (I didn’t watch it with him, of course!)

      Apart from the Foundation trilogy and a collection of his Black Widower detective stories I’m rather deficient in my appreciation of Asimov, sadly. Having said which, I coincidentally picked up his first ever novel Pebble in the Sky secondhand yesterday!

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