I’m a book-buyer. As much as I enjoy libraries, I prefer to buy most of the books that I read, because most of them I will go back and reread at some point, or at least flip through for reference. Some books might only be reread once, or exist so that I can lend them out to someone else, but there are certain books in my collection that get reread over and over again, and never do they became weaker in the retelling. Books like the Lord of the Rings, or the Wheel of Time, or Foundation.
It was actually a television adaptation of Foundation that prompted me to realize how long it had been since I last read this science fiction classic, and that it was probably time for a revisit. My wife and I recently watched AppleTV’s interpretation of Asimov’s novel, and so I decided it was an opportune time for a reread. It had the added benefit of helping me to avoid reading How to Write 21st Century Fiction, which I did not enjoy and which will be reviewed next week.
Aside from reminding me just how amazing Foundation really is, I also realized some of the reasons why the show confused me; namely that it only poorly followed the book. Asimov used a very spare style of prose for his Foundation books, and gave us more of a sketch of his World than a comprehensive description. The show supplies details that never existed and plays fast and loose with all kinds of information that Asimov did include, but this is not a review for the Foundation show.
Underpinning the whole of Asimov’s Foundation series is the concept of psychohistory, a mathematical technique by which the future of broad populations, societies, and civilizations can be predicted. Although the actual mathematics were invented for the story, and never explicitly stated, the concepts behind them are drawn from sociology and other fields of scientific inquiry. What has most resonated with me is the idea of societal inertia, which states that large populations, like large masses, will have a greater tendency to continue along their current trajectory, and require commensurately larger forces to alter that path. Or, alternatively, small forces over a long period of time.
In that respect, Foundation is a variation on the butterfly effect described in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. Instead of travelling back in time and doing something small in the past that multiplies and changes the original present, we have a story of people doing little things in the present with the hope of changing the future, all according to the plans of the master of psychohistory, dead before his plans are really begun.
Asimov makes several interesting storytelling choices that can make Foundation a confusing read for the unsuspecting, and which are doubtless part of why the television show took such liberties with the storytelling. There is very little drama in the modern sense, very little appeal to emotion; this is frequent in science fiction of the era, and part of what is so appealing to me about it, as it allows the core ideas to come through without being bogged down in drama for drama’s sake. More unusually, there is no single protagonist through the whole novel. Instead, Asimov introduces us to a character for a section, we follow them through a crisis, and then we jump in time, sometimes hundreds of years, to completely different characters in a completely different environment dealing with a completely difference crisis. In this sense, Foundation is almost like a collection of interconnected and serialized short stories or novellas, as opposed to a coherent novel, not unlike Asimov’s Robot stories.
Also like other science fiction of the period, Asimov’s storytelling in Foundation is startlingly anachronistic. Not as badly as a story like Double Star, which was just 1950s America translated into a solar system wide civilization with nary a change, but there are still moments that show where the author’s emphasis was – not on the world-building. The Empire is sketched out, and the civilizations within it, and a little of its history, but the main characters do not feel like products of their times. They feel much more like people out of 1960s America transplanted into a future galaxy spanning empire, complete with cigars, cigarettes, and morals.
Having just read a biography of Von Braun, it was interesting to observe that Foundation reflects the much greater comfort with authoritarianism that was pervasive at the time. It is little discussed or considered today, but during the height of the Cold War Americans were far more willing to embrace authoritarianism in a reaction against communism.
Yet underpinning the whole story is psychohistory, and the knowledge that a plan has been set forth to curtail the end of civilization and the dark age that is sure to follow. The tension lies in how the characters in each section will solve their respective puzzles, and how the plan will unfold. Just like experimental subjects cannot know of the experiment, or it will invalidate their responses, Seldon hides his psychohistory from everyone, so that no one knows the plan. The reader is left to guess whether civilization is still moving along the track that Seldon plotted through the darkness, or if instead of a single millennium, there will be twelve thousand years of barbarism.
It’s a thought-provoking book, and if you haven’t read it, you really should. This is one of those classics of science fiction, by one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time that everyone should read at least once. I find myself referencing it and its concepts in everything from studies of history to discussions of current events, and this is at least the fourth time that I’ve read it. I may not be able to calculate the course of human civilization, but I do predict that you will enjoy this book.