Foundation

I recently reread Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It’s a sci-fi classic about the period of time following the Galactic Empire’s collapse.

Well, that sounds trite, doesn’t it? But the books introduce an interesting premise: the creation of the science of psychohistory. Psychohistory applies the laws of statistics to the large-scale behavior of populations of humans.

Of course, it’s difficult or impossible to predict how an individual person will act, but at scale, or so the theory goes, humankind’s aggregate behavior is predictable. In other words, if there are enough people, you can predict the future.

Conveniently, the books take place about 12,000 years from now, when a quintillion humans populate the galaxy. The father of psychohistory is able to predict the collapse of the Empire, and the 30,000-year dark age to follow. He envisions a shortened 1,000 year period and, to save people from an additional 29,000 years of barbarism, carefully plots its course…

… in secret. Because there’s one additional caveat: if people know of a psychohistoric prediction, they may change their behavior, affecting its accuracy. So there’s the constant tension of normal humans discovering their 1,000 year path along the way, and possibly sabotaging it by accident or intent.

Asimov does an admirable job of constructing a world in which psychohistory is plausible, and then runs with it. He’s a master plotter, and twists abound throughout the series, as various foreseen and unforeseen forces conspire to derail a thousand years of predictions.

I might as well point out that the series is eminently mockable, as well: the wooden, identical, hyper-rational characters, the implausible specificity of the psychohistoric predictions (down to the day!), and the plot twists so insane that you start thinking that the least assuming characters are going to be the most important — and find that you’re correct. But it’s still a gripping read, and the concepts are rewarding.


Anyway, probably the biggest hole in the setup is the failure to account for technological advances. Sure, Asimov handwaves about the slow pace of discovery and the ignorance of the galaxy’s inhabitants. Many regions have lost the use of atomics, even — that staple of energy and military might!

But Asimov uses atomics as a crutch. It’s one of the principle differentiators of power, and technological progress is stated mostly in terms of who has atomics and who doesn’t. What about all the new stuff?

Yes, ignorance abounds, but there are 1,000 years and literally 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 minds at work. And these are people who can travel through hyperspace. Surely revolutionary technology will be invented.

And this is where it gets interesting. Asimov, like all sci-fi writers, is faced with the challenge (and pleasure) of imagining future technology, and hits some snags. For one thing, he starts so far in the future as to make a mockery of plausible prediction*, but we’ll give him that — in sci-fi books, you pretty much accept the technology accompanying a story’s given time as axiomatic. But Asimov (a) writes on a time scale so large that even within the context of the story technology must advance an incomprehensible degree, and (b) uses as his fundamental premise a mechanism, psychohistory, that claims to predict the future but does not (and, realistically, cannot) account for such technological advances.

The result is a level of disbelief that’s harder to suspend than what’s usually required when reading a science fiction book.

* It’s as if the ancient Egyptians had to predict the year 8000.


But it’s also a really neat insight into Asimov’s time. The books were written between 1942 and 1950, during and after World War II and the attendant astonishment and hysteria stemming from Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 that established America as the world’s primary power.

As such, it’s no surprise that, at least in Asimov’s mind, atomics would be humankind’s dominant technology. And it’s not a bad guess. We’ve wrestled with atomic power for the last half century, but given its potential, good money says atomics are going to be around for a long time.

But, oh, what he misses. While reading the books, I made a list of some technologies that are around now — a mere 50 years in the future — that Asimov fails to predict. For instance, in Foundation (again, 12,000 years in the future), people use:

  • Pen and paper, exclusively
  • Physical film
  • Taxi drivers (see Google’s driverless car)
  • Contact lenses (see LASIK)
  • Slide rules (!)

Conversely, there isn’t:

  • Encryption (secret messages are delivered by hand! even onto a spaceship)
  • A repository of knowledge (see the Internet)

Oh yeah, also: no computers. Kind of a biggie. People plot spaceship trajectories by hand.

Of course, Asimov is not to fault for these omissions. How could he possibly know? Other stuff he couldn’t have known about: the double-helix structure of DNA, silicon transistors, genetic modification. I hesitate to make a blanket statement about the futility of all science fiction predictions, because there have been some spectacular bulls-eyes in the past, and anyway it’s just something you accept when you get into the genre.

But by illustrating what Asimov couldn’t have predicted, we expose the central flaw in psychohistory’s framework: that predicting human behavior is sufficient to predict the future. The web, Google, even WikiLeaks — these things are disruptive. Technology matters.

Or perhaps he’s onto something. 60s counterculture, the fall of Soviet communism, 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq… would these events have played out radically differently without the above technologies? Does technology dictate the direction of human events, or merely serve as an accompaniment?

But Asimov traps himself. Atomics are critical to the plot of the Foundation series, and their use influences the outcome of several conflicts. So he argues by example that technology does play a huge part in human events. And the only technology he gives any credence to is atomic energy. If he had written Foundation a mere 15 years later, my guess is that computers would have played just as significant a role.

But atomics is all there is, because atomics are all he could see, writing through 1945 and the singular, transformative bombing of Japan. Art is the product of its age, and all that.

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3 Responses to Foundation

  1. Greenough says:

    It is a great read as well as some of the pre and post stuff that is out there. Gibson would be an example of a more modern writer who has been shockingly close to reality in many ways. Strong post.

  2. TheVondruke says:

    Nice post. To an even deeper extent, if you read “Gulliver’s Travels”, Gulliver encounters a super advanced civilization who float through the sky on an island, yet Gulliver is amazingly impressed by their network of pulleys and other laughably archaic technology. But he had no idea of even circuits, let alone computers or ZiPhones. You can’t really blame them.

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