Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Predicting the Future: Asimov’s Foundation

Cover for blog entry about Isaac Asimov's Foundation stories

I recently read the last of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, Forward the Foundation. It was published posthumously in 1993 after his death in 1992. It features the last years of his hero, Hari Seldon, and the completion of his galaxy-spanning and history-spanning project, Foundation. It seems fitting that Asimov’s last book was the last Foundation book, and that in it his hero dies. A major theme of the novel is mortality, and it’s easy to think of Asimov writing about Seldon’s death as writing about his own death. In reading it I couldn’t help being reminded of how much of Asimov’s writings have touched my own life. As a teenager in the 1970s I devoured everything of his I could get my hands on, including the Robot stories, the many short story collections and, of course, the Foundation series. And I dipped into the series again in the 80s every time Asimov brought out a new iteration, including Foundation’s Edge in 1982, Foundation and Earth in 1986, and then finally the two prequels. I’ve grown up and grown old with the series. It’s a bittersweet feeling.

To give you an idea of the series, it’s a sort of wordy galaxy-spanning space opera (and an influence on Star Wars and much else in the genre). It features an idea called Psychohistory, which purports to predict (and occasionally control) future events using mathematics, psychology, sociology and history studies. Its central figure is Hari Seldon, a mathematician who develops and oversees the application of Psychohistory as it plays out within the galaxy over centuries. His hope is, by being able to predict and control something of future developments, to stave off, or at least reduce, the worst aspects (the encroaching chaos) of a crumbling galactic empire. Asimov was inspired in this by the history of the ancient Roman empire and its decline which resulted in centuries of ‘Dark Ages’ before the European Renaissance restored an age of ‘enlightenment’.

It’s an interesting idea, and one that Asimov worked on for nearly fifty years until his death in 1992. The first stories appeared in the early 1940s in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction. They were then collected into three novels as Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. In 1982 a wildly successful new novel called Foundation’s Edge was published, followed by the sequel Foundation and Earth in 1986. These stories took the series as far as it would go into the future. From there, Asimov backtracked and produced two prequels set before all these novels and featuring the story of Psychohistory’s founder, Hari Seldon. These were Prelude To Foundation and Forward the Foundation, the last novel Asimov wrote before his death.

Together, the seven novels represent an epic tale of galaxy-spanning adventure, couched in Asimov’s child-like ‘golden era of scifi’ style. But wait, there’s more! In 1997 Gregory Benford published a novel called Foundation’s Fear, set to be the first of what would be called ‘the second Foundation trilogy’. This was followed by Greg Bear’s Foundation and Chaos and then David Brin’s Foundation’s Triumph. This second trilogy was authorised by Asimov’s wife, Janet, and estate representative, Ralph Vicinanza. It’ a fascinating continuation of the story, delving into some of the gaps Asimov left behind, especially the period from Hari Seldon’s later years to the first Foundation novel.

I’ve only read Benford’s novel so far, but I’m already impressed by the additions he’s made to Asimov’s Foundation world, especially his treatment of Psychohistory. Asimov tended to treat it like a type of pseudo science, making vague references to its application and apparatus, presenting ‘mcguffins’ like ‘the prime radiant’ to explain its inner workings. Benford treats the idea like an actual theory and provides real world experiences and research to convey what it might have actually looked like. He draws upon the whole panoply of scientific endeavour, including history, psychology, biology, mathematics, anthropology and others to get the idea across. Multiple and conflicting theories for Psychohistory are discussed by various characters within the novel, giving the idea a depth that it lacked in Asimov’s books and inciting the thought ‘what if it could actually be done?’.

Even though Asimov didn’t really flesh out the idea, he certainly had a good idea of the implications of Psychohistory, if it actually existed. As soon as he announces his tentative theory at a conference on Trantor in Prelude, Hari Seldon is beset by sceptics, feted by the Emperor Cleon 1, and hunted down by would-be assassins. By Forward the Foundation, when the theory has begun to bear fruit in the form of a prediction of the galaxy’s rapid decline and decay, Seldon’s popularity takes a nosedive and he struggles to gain the funding needed to establish his first Foundation. This is similar to a scenario being played out today, for, in the Afterward to his novel, Benford writes ‘Science fiction speaks of the future, but to the present’.

So, in our present, in a sense, we already have a limited version of Psychohistory in the very act of scientific endeavour. And in the economic sphere large resources are expended to predict stock market growths and other indicators of wealth (mostly for the few). Both endeavours have come together in the last hundred years in the (real) phenomenon of climate change. One, like Seldon, has predicted and shown its reality, while the other, like the sceptics and deniers, has tried to ignore its existence because of its potentially disastrous economic implications. The threat of catastrophe, whether economic, social or environmental, is always with us, and administrators around the world think about it and plan responses to it. These responses can only be called experiments, whether they be acts of Congress, shifts in economic policy, changes to law or legislation, or simple inaction. They are tests of our social fabric. The results can be embraced, learned from, or ignored, depending on their ideological palatability. Our history has been made up of such results. Have we truly learned from them, or do we make the same mistakes again and again? Perhaps when we stop making them we will have learned the true meaning of Psychohistory.

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