Revisiting Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy

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Isaac Asimov's psychohistory of galactic empires is covered in the first of a new series about the philosophy found in classic science fiction novels

Originally serialized in Astounding Magazine during the 1940s, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is one of his most widely known works. Yet, many of the people I’ve come across have never heard of Foundation. Instead, they are familiar with his robot stories. Perhaps the Hollywood adaption of I, Robot is the reason for this, a loose adaption which led those unfamiliar with his work to look up the Three Laws of Robotics rather than the principles of psychohistory.

Foundation and its two sequels are some of Asimov’s richest novels where intellectual value is concerned. The classic trilogy addresses sociology, history, futurism, and the limits of humankind’s intellectual ability on a galaxy-wide scale. While Asimov later came back to the Foundation series to add several polarizing prequels and sequels, the original trilogy is worth considering on its own, mostly because all three of the books could so easily pass as one single work.

The story begins in an almost portal fantasy-like fashion—a genre in which someone from our world is thrust into an unfamiliar universe—except Gaal Dornick, the first character to appear in Foundation, isn’t from our world at all, but originates from a small and fictional planet some twenty-thousand years in the future. Yet, despite our lack of familiarity with Gaal’s world, we relate to the awe he feels when he first arrives on Trantor, the planet-wide city at the heart of the Galactic Empire. Though Gaal is from a world whose technology would seem like magic to us today, he is blown away by what he sees on Trantor, a world on the forefront of human advancement and civilization. Asimov demonstrates a level of story-telling expertise with this opening scene, and the stage has been set perfectly for what is to come. We soon learn the big and beautiful galactic empire we have just been shown is on the brink of destruction.

To resolve the conflict, Asimov’s characters introduce the concept of psychohistory. With the galaxy heading for an age of darkness following the collapse of its empire, the mathematician Hari Seldon—who was possibly Asimov’s literary alter-ego—devises a way to quantify sociological trends to make probabilistic predictions of the future. Though his theory of psychohistory is limited in its ability to predict the actions of individuals, Seldon is able to spot the influencing socio-political events that will shape the course of galactic history. Pushing his theory to the limit, Seldon produces the optimal solution to the problem: a set of events that, if carefully orchestrated in the right sequence, will reduce the time of darkness in the galaxy from that of thirty-thousand years to only a thousand.

Accused of being disloyal to the Empire, Seldon is banished to Terminus. There, he creates his Foundation, a society of individuals dedicated to ensuring his plan for the future is carried out, even hundreds of years after his death. Soon, the collapse of the galactic empire begins and the Seldon Plan goes into action.

The concept of psychohistory raises a set of questions we should ask ourselves as a species. So far, in the course of human history, the limits of human inquiry and science have been transient; much of what was impossible one hundred years ago is not the same as what is impossible today. Assuming our abilities in both the natural and social sciences continue to increase, it can only be expected we might someday develop the means to quantify historical and sociological trends in order to predict, if not the future, at least the general course of history to come. In a way, we already seem to be on course for this. Some statisticians have been reasonably successful in predicting the outcomes of sports games and political elections; imagining they might go from being right two times out of three to nine times out of ten isn’t difficult. And, once they’ve reached that level of probabilistic certainty, it isn’t difficult to imagine them going even further given more time.

What does our species do with such an ability should we ever develop it? What would the consequences be? The question is examined in Asimov’s Foundation sequels: Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. Inevitably, Asimov was pushed by his editor John Campbell to introduce a source of conflict into the story—good guys who always win because they can control the future doesn’t make for the most engaging plot—and the Mule is introduced in the series’ second book. A mutant with the ability to control the emotions and minds of those around him, the Mule is unaccounted for in Hari Seldon’s original plan. From there, the sequence of events the Foundation was meant to bring about is derailed.

But Hari Seldon, having the foresight to expect events outside of his theory’s statistical certainty, devised a contingency plan and a way to strengthen the abilities of the Foundation itself: the Second Foundation. This, it turns out, was where the real meat of his plan lay. If his progeny were to know the future, the information which revealed it would have to remain private, otherwise, the very act of knowing the future might tempt the agents in play to change their minds about what they were going to do. Behind the scenes, the Second Foundation ensures the Seldon Plan is carried out, even influencing the first Foundation when they have to.

Much of Foundation and Empire is about the Mule’s search to find the Second Foundation, hoping to take control of the galaxy and the course of history for himself. One of the most captivating scenes in the book is when the Mule verbally acknowledges to a man under the control of his powers that the man’s actions are only the product of his mental manipulation. In response, the man voices that he is aware he is enslaved, but continues to profess his loyalty and wish to fulfill the Mule’s orders. It’s a powerful scene, and one that reveals a lot about Asimov’s materialistic view of the natural world. The Mule is able to remove a person’s free will simply by tweaking their neural activity. But the scene also speaks to the bigger theme of Foundation: the control of humankind. While Hari Seldon’s Foundation is only capable of controlling cities, societies, and planets, the Mule is capable of controlling every individual he approaches, and the two sides employ these means of control to fight for the mastery the human race.

Asimov’s attitude to such a power—the ability to manipulate the minds of individuals—is revealed by the tone of the book. Foundation and Empire is arguably his darkest work, and while its twist at the end is disappointingly predictable, the choices his characters make to prevent the Mule from discovering the Second Foundation are excitingly desperate. Perhaps this speaks to a sentiment and fear an intellectually inclined individual such as Asimov had: you may manipulate the masses, but do not dare to manipulate me. I, for one, struggle to find the distinction between the two forms of manipulation. Either way, in effect, someone is manipulated in the mind; it’s only the extent of that manipulation which differs between the Foundation and the Mule.

Asimov confronted this issue more directly in the third book of the Trilogy, Second Foundation. This books exhibits an obvious shift in tone from its predecessor, and the ability to control individual minds is no longer associated with evil. Hari Seldon’s Second Foundation, the focus of the final entry in the trilogy, controls the course of events by the subtle mental manipulation of certain key individuals in galactic politics—albeit to a much less invasive extent than the Mule. In the first half of the novel, the Second Foundation and the Mule go head to head, with the Second Foundation winning out. The second half of the novel concerns itself with the Second Foundation’s struggle to preserve their secrecy from the first Foundation, a society who either wants to put all their trust into the Second Foundation, or doesn’t want to be controlled by the Second Foundation at all—and would rather do the controlling themselves.

To me, this is the most philosophically interesting portion of the trilogy, and the one most open to interpretation. Asimov was a known humanist and atheist, and his opinion on religion is already shown in the first Foundation book, in which a church who worships the “galactic spirit” is spawned as a means of controlling a portion of the galaxy’s population and effecting the next event in the Seldon Plan. Now at the end of the trilogy, the characters of the two Foundations are presented with a dilemma. If the first Foundation is aware of the presence of the Second Foundation, then the first Foundation may become complacent. Feeling that the Second Foundation will ensure everything turns out the way it needs to be, their actions may be influenced, their motivation to carry out the Seldon Plan impeded, therefore debilitating the Second Foundation from carrying out the Seldon Plan as well—for the Second Foundation’s influence is much more subtle and in need of a front-end force to carry out the meat of the work. Perhaps Asimov is appealing to humanism here, for the same could be said for humankind. If we humans believe there is a god who will make everything right in the end, we will be less motivated to make things right ourselves. Faith, instead of solace, could be encouraging us to accept this broken world as it is because a better one awaits us. It allows us to accept the mass suffering in this world, not out of callousness or indifference, but out of patience. If we just wait, things will be better. Much like the first Foundation putting too much faith into the Second Foundation, humankind could be putting too much faith into its deities.

Yet, it could also be interpreted another way. If we interpret Second Foundation by strong analogy, then we accept that God exists in said analogy—after all, the Second Foundation exists in Asimov’s universe. Perhaps, in the same way the Second Foundation can’t reveal themselves, God can’t reveal himself because it invalidates the need for faith, the need for humankind to take it upon themselves to ask for forgiveness. If God revealed himself, and by doing so influenced all worldly things, he would be disrupting his own plan. There would be no need for free will and no need for man.

Either way, in the story itself, the Second Foundation is limited by the very function they are supposed to serve. To work in the shadows, they must give up the effectiveness of working in the light. And though the trilogy ends with the Second Foundation preserving their secrecy and setting the Seldon Plan back on track, it ends on an unsettling note for the reader willing to think about the implications.

Perhaps, in the chaos that is our world, a select few should hold all the power in secrecy and ensure society and order are preserved. Plato certainly appealed to this line of reasoning in The Republic by admonishing democracy and suggesting a benevolent dictator should govern all humankind. The question is, who should that benevolent dictator be? How could Hari Seldon be sure someone like the Mule wouldn’t take control of the Second Foundation?

Alex Drozd

Alex Drozd is a graduate of the University of Alabama, where he studied astrophysics. He now works as a computer programmer. As well as being a regular contributor to Sci Phi Journal, Alex’s work has also appeared in Daily Science Fiction.

4 Comments

  1. I think that your statement — “Assuming our abilities in both the natural and social sciences continue to increase, it can only be expected we might someday develop the means to quantify historical and sociological trends in order to predict, if not the future, at least the general course of history to come. In a way, we already seem to be on course for this…” — is a prescient one!

    Moreover, the difficult issues that you raise, regarding such capability, are in fact already extant.

    There is a group, since circa 1999 C.E., known as ‘Foundation Encyclopedia Dialectica’ [F.E.D.], who have derived a system of seven ‘psychohistorical-dialectical meta-equations’, that reconstruct the past, and that can be iterated forward to symbolically ‘pre-construct’ the probable future, of key aspects of human-social ‘meta-evolution’, using a new, ‘contra-Boolean’ mathematics discovered by their co-founder, alias ‘Karl Seldon’. Their work is available for free-of-charge download via http://www.dialectics.org

  2. My favorite science fiction work. From its sparks of wisdom (“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”) to the psychological climax (“Yes, now I see it”, “And now you don’t”). But wait, now I have to read “The Republic”? That hardly seems fair.

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