Classics of science fiction: Foundation

Tom Grundy

Classics of science fiction: Foundation
July 21, 2020 Tom Grundy

This is the semi-regular feature in which we look back at the seminal works of science fiction. The stories that outraged, baffled, and appalled; the books that posited answers a generation before anyone thought to ask the questions; the novels that bent society’s collective consciousness around them and seeded popular culture and humanity’s vision of itself to this day. From Frankenstein to Foundation, these are the books that blew our minds and created our genre. 

‘Psychohistory’ is the fictional science and central conceit of the Foundation series, and suggests that, with enough mathematics, all of human destiny can be mapped out and planned. This idea is the engine which drives Foundation and its sequels, over and above plot, character, dialogue, setting, or action. It’s a troubling and deterministic idea that has nevertheless inspired generations of thinkers. 

Foundation itself was first published as five interrelated stories in Astounding Science Fiction when the author, Isaac Asimov, was in his early 20s. It was first published as a single novel in 1951. In a way it is the emblematic mid-century science fiction novel; woefully light on character depth but soaringly inspiring in its ideas and scope. Typically for the time, the far future it depicts is one of ubiquitous plastic clothes and ‘atomic’ technology (among the quirks of modern history that science fiction authors failed to foresee were the limited lasting utility of nuclear fission, the challenge of nuclear fusion, and the swift relegation of synthetic clothing to sportswear and cheap fashion). It’s not Asimov’s most famous book; that accolade probably rests with I, Robot (1950) due in part to that book’s lasting impact on our thinking about artificial intelligence. But the ideas Foundation contains have inspired writers, filmmakers, economists, and public figures ever since, and in 1966 the series as a whole won the Hugo Award for the Best All-Time Series. 

The book (and the series) is structurally a series of vignettes featuring pivotal people in humanity’s future history as key transitional moments play out around them. Hari Seldon, the first ‘psychohistorian’, has determined a way to calculate the trajectory of the human race. He predicts that the Galactic Empire will fall in a matter of a few hundred years (a heretic prophesy) and that 30,000 years of anarchic dark ages will follow. He sets up the eponymous Foundation, a small, isolated cadre of psychohistorians, with the mission to quietly steer humanity long after his death in order to foreshorten this dark age and hasten the dawn of the Second Empire. 

Foundation’s characters are rubbish. They’re all stolid science men who exist to do things, with no inner lives and no distinguishing features beyond their (admittedly quite good) names. This is probably the most noticeable of the problems with Foundation, but it’s arguably not the largest.

For this writer at least, the biggest problem is the central conceit: the idea that unelected boffins can and should use deception and ignorance to steer the human race towards their desired outcome. Celebrated economist Paul Krugman wrote in 2012 that he “grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.” The idea that any one or group of humans should ordain themselves humanity’s saviours and shepherd us to pastures they deem greener without our consent sticks in this writer’s craw. ‘Consent’ was apparently a difficult concept for Asimov, anecdotally one of the 20th century’s handsiest writers. 

But it’s not just the arrogance and hubris of it — it’s also the implausibility. ‘Big data’ as a concept doesn’t exist in Foundation (indeed, it’s another modern development few science fiction writers foresaw) so Seldon is working with limited data points. As meteorology shows, without ubiquitous data points, complex systems will diverge from models over time.

So I have quibbles — but Foundation and its sequels are still books I enjoyed enough to re-read and whose ideas have stayed with me for half my life. Why?

Few books deal in the scope that Foundation does. The stakes are not the deaths of individuals or even the destruction of planets; the pieces on the table are entire civilisations and they move in a timeframe counted in centuries and millennia. The structure of the books is arguably necessary for this; awkward and whistlestop it may feel, but personal perspectives are the only way to stop narratives of this nature feeling more like textbooks than novels. 

The decline and fall of a civilisation (especially one in our far future) is an intriguing premise, especially when informed by very real events in our past, and the cyclical sensation the novel achieves prompts interesting questions about our own destiny and permanence. 

Foundation is an unsatisfying read alone; I’ve cheated somewhat by including it as one novel, as really the series needs to be read sequentially in order to give a sense of resolution. But any lover of big ideas should consider it essential reading.