Science Fiction Review Series: Foundation by Isaac Asimov

August 8, 2017

Foundation, by science-fiction titan Isaac Asimov, truly earns the label “timeless.” Though the novel was first published in 1951, and four of its five short stories were published in 1942 and 1944, the politics of the narrative and the science that plays an integral role on the galactic stage are still relevant today. Foundation is stunning not just because of its scope, but also because of the standard it sets for its genre.

Set in a distant enough future that humanity has forgotten its origin planet, Foundation covers the early period of the massive Galactic Empire’s fall into ruin. The first of the five interconnected short stories details the political maneuverings of psychologist and mathematician Hari Seldon, who has developed a science called “psychohistory,” which combines sociology, statistics, and psychology to predict the future of large groups of people. Seldon has statistically predicted the imminent collapse of the Empire and a period of thirty thousand years of suffering and barbarism before a Second Empire rises from the ashes. But he has also used psychohistory to develop a plan for shortening the thirty thousand years to only one thousand. The rest of the short stories play out the first roughly two hundred years of Seldon’s predictions.

Asimov tells this tale almost entirely through dialogue between politicians in secret meetings—at trials, at council sessions, or at social functions. Only a handful of action- or description-driven scenes punctuate these discussions. This means that most of the book consists of theorizing, strategizing, and predicting, so that reading it feels rather like watching a championship chess game. Little differentiates the characters in physical description, voice, or quirks, making them largely identified with their political aims. Such a style may make the book a challenging read, but also keeps it intensely focused on the “big picture” of the Galactic Empire and the rogue kingdoms on its outskirts; the less time you spend getting to know the individuals and their personal lives, the more time you spend on the fate of the galaxy.

One of the key playing pieces in the politics of Foundation is nuclear power, a technological advancement that coincides remarkably with the historical context of World War II. In Asimov’s futuristic world, nuclear power is the measuring stick of the society’s advancement and success, and the primary bargaining chip when the Empire falls and the fragmented planets are thrown into a state of scientific regression. The possession of nuclear weapons heightens the tension between conflicting planets, and nuclear-powered goods prove to be persuasive items to trade.

The remarkable thing, however, is that Asimov was envisioning nuclear power plants, bombs, and luxury items during a period when the science was only just developing. The atom bomb dropped in 1945, the first functioning nuclear reactor was built in 1948, and the first plant to generate electricity for a power grid opened in 1954. Asimov wrote much of Foundation in the early forties, so he would not have witnessed the practical applications of nuclear fission yet. The technology of Asimov’s world was incredibly anticipatory, and incredibly relevant to his day, given that by the time it was published, nuclear technology had shown both great promise and great danger.

The other significant scientific field in Foundation, psychohistory, does not have such a grounding in real academic disciplines. While there is a field of study called “psychohistory,” its aim is to use psychanalysis to explain the reasons behind past events, while Asimov’s psychohistory is more concerned with using mathematics to predict future events. Yet this made-up discipline adds to Foundation’s merits as a work of science fiction.

In a previous review, I discussed how China Miéville’s The City & The City could be considered science fiction because it takes the field of psychology to an extreme and explores the results. Asimov’s psychohistory does the same thing in a different way. It imagines a world in which one could legitimately anticipate future events, thousands of years into the future, using principles of psychology and statistics, and then explores what might happen if this science ends up spelling disaster for humanity. How might this affect the political order of the time? How much power would it give psychohistorians if, as Hari Seldon claims in Foundation, it is as difficult to learn psychohistory as the physics of energy transfer? Will people still trust these predictions a hundred years later, and will knowing the predictions change their behavior? With Seldon’s predictions, Asimov uses psychohistory to create a science-fictional “occasion” for the novel, a “what if” that finds its origins in real science, but moves beyond them to a fictional scenario.

Just as nuclear power was considered the next frontier in sustainable energy, something like psychohistory may also be a “next frontier” in sociology or probability mathematics. After all, wouldn’t we all like to know when a new world power will rise up, when war might break out again, when an old empire will finally crumble? As one of Asimov’s key players puts it, “Any fool can tell a crisis when it arrives. The real service to the state is to detect it in embryo.”

Science fiction is famous, or perhaps notorious, for predicting developments both in science and in the state of humanity. What makes Foundation impressive is how it has anticipated real developments in the following decades, and how much of its fantasized futuristic technologies (force fields, space travel, uncontrolled urban expansion) are still finding their way into science fiction (and science fact) today. This novel holds up as a landmark work, and a standard-setter for the genre’s interaction with both cutting-edge technology and the future of the human race.

Reviewed by Lauren Klepinger


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