Last month I reviewed Prelude to Foundation, and now I’ve finally gotten to the original. The two books were written many decades apart, but even if I’d started with this book I still wouldn’t be in the order everything was written: the first section (“The Psychohistorians”) was only added in 1951 when the stories from the 40s were collected into the Foundation trilogy. Even aside from that, the last story in this book was actually published before the story which precedes it (and is referenced in it since it takes place earlier). Thus I shouldn’t be faulted too much for starting with the prequel.

I had read that Prelude (the first Asimov fiction I’d read) might be unrepresentative as a page-turner rather than a “novel of ideas”, and while the format of this is completely different, it turned out to be so readable that I finished it in four days, which is much shorter than Prelude took me. It is admittedly a shorter book, but I think its composition as a series of short stories makes it easier to dive in. It’s not like Asimov’s strong suit was characterization so I’d be pulled in to read about some specific characters. Replacing them with different ones over the decades works fine, with the throughline being they’re always clever enough to solve a tricky problem. The premise that Hari Seldon has foreseen the future and knows in advance that they’ll solve every crisis (or sub-crisis, as in the case of that out-of-order penultimate story) could theoretically remove any tension, but the future is even more set in a prequel (I’ll ignore that both books feature epigrams from a future encyclopedia, as Frank Herbert’s critique of Asimov’s psychohistory in “Dune” does as well), and the appeal is always finding out HOW each problem is solved. Which actually makes the very first published story, “The Encyclopedists”, odd in that a recording of Seldon just announces that the solution is “obvious” and readers at the time would have had to wait another month for it to be revealed in the backstory for the next story!

Another surprise was how faithful the pilot episode of the TV show was to “The Psychohistorians”. I had watched that (and only that episode, as I’m not an Apple subscriber and only wanted to compare that to Prelude when I briefly had access to the service) and noticed some obvious deviations like the Galactic Emperor being a clone and Gaal having a backstory (as well as being made a female) rather than being a blank recipient of exposition. I had assumed the plotline of Hari’s psychohistory being regarded as a threat to the Empire was a plotline copied over from Prelude and its resolution ignored so a TV audience would have an engaging conflict, but it appears Asimov himself didn’t reconcile things well and there’s a glaring absence of First Minister Eto Demerzel from Prelude here. I had read (see also here and here) that the series as a whole was not particularly faithful, and that would really be expected more for later stories since only two of the stories (and Psychohistorians isn’t one of them) share living characters with another, which is not how TV works outside of episodic anthologies.

The inspiration for the Galactic Empire is, of course, the Roman Empire, and Asimov’s take on its fall is inspired by Edward Gibbon (which I’ve admittedly never read myself and just know as an example of Whig history blaming Christianity). There are some obvious differences between the two cases: the Galactic Empire is 12 thousand years old (hence almost everyone but Seldon finding its fall unthinkable), whereas Rome merely lasted centuries. Seldon optimistically thinks the coming Dark Ages after its fall might be shortened from 30K to 1K, with the latter closer to how long historians would date between the fall of Rome and the High Middle Ages. Seldon does not aim at a new High Middle Ages (Earth’s history was so distant in Prelude that nobody even knew where humanity originated), but instead a Second Empire, which is not what replaced Rome (with all due respect to the Byzantines & Russians claiming the titles of Second & Third Rome, and no respect merited toward the so-called Holy Roman Empire). As I mentioned in my review of Prelude, Asimov had a very negative view of decentralization even while the Foundation is required to go to the outermost periphery to be free from Imperial stagnation. The plan Seldon puts forth to the authorities in The Psychohistorians is actually rather similar to a book I read in my childhood: How the Irish Saved Civilization. The idea is that even as centralized political authority collapsed with the fall of Rome, a subset of learned people (the Catholic clergy in monasteries in actual history, the scientist encyclopedists in Foundation) preserved knowledge from that civilization so that it might be accessible again as those dark ages faded. I doubt Asimov was thinking of Ireland specifically (which unlike southern Britain was never colonized by the Romans), as it was hardly ever the seat of an empire, but it does count as a sort of furthest fringe of western Europe (I know, there’s Iceland & the Faroe Islands). This also contrasts with the ideas of Peter Turchin, who thinks the asabiyah required for any new empire requires being on a hostile “metaethnic” frontier like Constantinople (although he counted Rome itself as an exception). Actual historian Bret Devereaux thinks the example of Genghis Khan suffices to refute both Turchin’s “cliodynamics” as well as Asimov/Seldon’s “psychohistory”.

As the stories go on, the example of the Catholic Church after the fall of Rome gets more explicit, with certain emissaries of Foundation scientific knowledge explicitly referred to as “priests”. Of course, the irreligious Asimov does not have any actual believers as his characters, instead the insiders regard it as hokum they need to sell to the rubes of the neighboring Periphery planets that might threaten them. There is actually a slight analogy here to hbdchick’s account of how Saints Augustine & Aquinas deliberately encouraged exogamy via Catholic restrictions on cosanguinous marriage in order to break the political power of the clans (Harold Berman’s “Law & Revolution”, which I wrote multiple posts about, similarly explains clerical celibacy in the 11th century as a means of obtaining independence from such local rulers). But Asimov is too much of a Whig for them to receive that much focus within even the first of three books. The emphasis is always on progress rather than the mere preservation of what older scholars have written, and his heroes those who overturn the standards around them (even when those standards were set by earlier heroes). First Mayor Salvor Hardin, one of those first heroes after Seldon, lambastes the leaders of the Foundation, saying “Throughout you have invariably relied on authority or on the past — never on yourselves” (shades of Tanner Greer, as cited in another classic scifi review of mine). That comes up after a discussion on archaeology, which would have been linked to history and other more “humanistic” fields (its engaged in like literary criticism) at the time rather than a “hard” science like Asimov’s own biochemistry. A later hero up against those overly reliant on the innovations of that same iconoclast says “In Hardin’s time, when conquest by missionary was new and radical, men like yourself opposed it. Now it is tried, tested, hallowed”, leaving out “old hat” or “played out”, which is the actual view of him & Asimov. He also says, as part of the thesis of the overall work: “Seldon crises are not solved by individuals but by historic forces. Hari Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on broad sweeps of economics and sociology. So the solutions to the various cirses must be achieved by the forces that become available to us at the time.” I beg to differ: Seldon, Hardin & Hober Mallor (who I just quoted) all seem like heroic geniuses, Great Men of History of the sort Asimov was rejecting.

That last link responds to the question of whether Seldon’s own existence is a problem for psychohistory, which he claims requires that people be ignorant of psychohistory itself in order for that not to throw off the predictions, “blind mobs who do not possess foreknowledge of the results of their own actions”. My view is that this has a Doyleist explanation: Asimov didn’t want his characters to get all the answers from Seldon in advance but rather to discover them in the moment so the stories would be more interesting (presumably the aliens from Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” would write differently). It’s a rule in fiction that plans announced to the audience from the beginning must fail. As with my last non-fiction review, I would bring up the use (popularized a while after Asimov wrote these stories, although game theory was born around the first book) of social science modelling using rational expectations in which agents know as much about the model as the modeller. This does mean you can’t reliably fool all the people all the time (something Asimov’s Magnificent Bastard heroes can reliably pull off), but it doesn’t preclude making predictions about which sorts of regimes give rise to which sort of outcomes. Asimov’s ideals come from the older vogue for Authoritarian High Modernism popular around the midcentury, in which an elite like Seldon knows best and his objective is to limit the number of options to his successors (hence exiling them to the edge of the galaxy on Terminus) so the only viable choice available is the one he predicts: “as long as more than one course of action is possible, the crisis has not been reached. We must let things drift so long as we possibly can”. One modern wide-ranging social scientist whose thought extends far into the future of civilization expanding across the galaxy is Robin Hanson. Rather than resorting to “symbolic logic” like Hardin decoding that the speech of an imperial envoy to see it contained nothing of substance, he would rely on a prediction market to show whether it moved any prices and thus whether people incentivized to be accurate (as Salvor Hardin happened to be) took it seriously regardless of its content. A prediction market by nature aggregates information and makes it public to all participants, which does not fit Asimov’s tendency toward lone heroes (and thus arguably better fits his stated focus on impersonal social forces).

Something that surprised me was that despite Asimov himself being a scientist, Foundation evinces a dimmer view of them than of politicians(!), of all people. This reminded me a little of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers containing a coup by scientists in its past that failed due to their lack of civic mindedness. While Seldon’s heirs running the Board of Trustees of the Foundation appear to have forgotten his prediction of imperial collapse by The Encyclopedists, Seldon himself says of his antagonist in The Psychohistorians “Chen knew I spoke the truth. He is a very clever politician and politicians by the very nature of their work must have an instinctive feeling for the truths of psychohistory.” I once thought similarly that politicians, whatever their other demerits, are at least experts at getting elected. David Shor assures us that elected officials do have their fingers closer to the pulse of normies than most in media/academia, but the success of the amateur Donald Trump (who ignored the advice of seemingly everyone and whose lack of endorsements went against “The Party Decides“) indicated to me that perhaps they really don’t know what they’re doing and electoral politics is less competitive than I thought. After reading Prelude, I found it odd that Seldon was here described as the “greatest psychologist” rather than a mathematician (which would better fit the claim of psychohistory to be like ideal gas laws but incapable of predicting individual behavior). Hardin concludes that Seldon deliberately excluded psychologists from the set of scientists on Terminus, with one only teaching him the basics so he would go on to a career in politics rather than academia (with the academics of Hardin’s time all incapable of perceiving Seldon’s actual plan).

Since I’ve brought up an area of surprising similarity to Starship Troopers, there’s also a very obvious difference. One of Hardin’s famous epigrams is that “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”, and he says that even in the first story where he’s the militant warning about a takeover by Anacreon in the face of the complacent Board. This is quite a contrast to Troopers teaching kids that “Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst”. Heinlein of course served in the peacetime Navy for years whereas Asimov was only briefly drafted away from his civilian role at the Philadelphia Navy Yard (having been recruited there by Heinlein). Whenever an opponent from another planet threatens violence (which happens in most of the stories, often alongside a political struggle on Terminus), Asimov’s heroes find a way to frustrate the belligerent. Hence Mallow’s stated plan in the last story is to do “nothing” during an actual war, which is stated to be the most “unfought” one in known history. That struck me as a stretch. Whereas prior crises had been acute enough to be quickly headed off, during a war the opponent will not cooperate in a “stalemate” and the economic costs Mallow was counting on from the end of trade would have been enough of a political risk that he couldn’t be sure the more belligerent Actionist party (who sometimes hold power on Terminus, but not when Asimov’s heroes have anything to say about it) wouldn’t come to power. A mere acknowledgement that a military strategy would be required simply to minimize losses even if he wasn’t seeking an outright victory would have been an improvement. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress also involved a smaller society taking on a larger one (which admittedly is a better fit for The Encyclopedists than The Mayors) and a super-smart leader making probabilistic predictions as to making a war costly enough that the opponent will prefer peace, but he actually showed the work of demonstrating that to the opponents that rather than relying on a Caplanian deduction that war is just unecomical.

One final oddness is that it’s a scifi story set in the distant future but written (mostly) in the 40s, so Asimov didn’t know what the future would contain. Hence the lack of much discussion of computers, and how he had to shoehorn his robot stories into his Foundation series with Prelude (where robots are mostly forgotten and only referenced in ancient texts). The thing which differentiates Terminus from the rest of the Periphery in The Encyclopedists is that they still have nuclear power, and it’s asserted later on that a nuclear power could never lose a military conflict to a non-nuclear one. That was of course written with the most recent US war being WW2, prior to the stalemate in Korea and loss in Vietnam (much less our recent misadventure in even more backward Afghanistan). It was also before whatever-the-hell-happened in the 70s that resulted in nuclear power being strangled in regulations.

I’ve already picked up the next non-fiction book I plan on reading, but it’s one Scott Alexander already did a tour-de-force review of and I’m considering just completing the entire Foundation trilogy since people often treat it like one book. So my next posts might just be more of this.