“To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well. I’ll improvise.”
— Isaac Asimov, "Foundation" pg. 241
Isaac Asimov is one of the most well known science fiction authors of all time. The period in which he wrote became known as the golden age of science fiction, due to the quality and progressiveness of his novels, along with the work of a few other renowned authors: John W. Campbell, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert A. Heinlein to name a few.
In was during this period that Asimov produced his most well known work, the Foundation series. Originally published in the 50's as a trilogy of novels, the series was later expanded, some 30 years later, to encompass 4 more novels; bringing the total to seven novels published over the course of four decades. Asimov also had a PhD in biochemistry, and he was a professor at Boston University (he eventually stopped teaching to pursue writing full time). Evidently, his academic background and high level of education convinced everyone that his books should be classified as a more legit version of science-fiction, and thus they are normally categorized under a genre referred to as hard science-fiction. How is it different than regular SF? As far as I can tell, it sounds like when your invented science and technology is believable enough, your work gets to be classified as hard science-fiction. Precisely who gets the privilege of deciding which sub-genre your science fiction belongs in, I am not sure.
I just finished reading Asimov's first hard SF novel, Foundation. It was recommended to me by my roommate Sam, so right away I knew it was probably going to be shit..but alas, even a broken clock makes good book recommendations twice a day.¹ I quite enjoyed Foundation, despite not experiencing the same sort of emotional engagement I do with other good sci-fi and fantasy novels. This is mainly because the book is actually structured as a number of unconnected (or loosely connected) stories, taking place in chronological order but involving mostly different characters and different places. As such, I wasn't able to invest as much into the characters when their development was limited to 30-50 pages or so.
The upside, however, is that this different sort of book structuring is one of the main reasons I liked it. I don't think I've ever read a SF novel like Foundation. The scale of time over which the story takes place and the multiple jumps in time to different eras should make it more difficult to feel any sort of plot continuity or momentum within the story, especially since many of the characters die within the time span covered. But it works because you are interested in a cause not limited or pursued by one singular individual, but a cause being pursued by generations of individuals - the establishment of a galaxy-wide empire! It is a really unique concept and it raises different sorts of questions and ideas than your typical hero-centric SF novel might.
The idea I thought about a lot is the concept of determinism in Foundation. Determinism is the notion that our actions and decisions are not of our own volition; instead they have already been predetermined and our future is already set in stone, it just hasn't happened yet. The rationale behind this line of thinking could be based in either science or religion (or in a bowl of alphagetti for that matter), but the psychological consequences are the same.
From a religious perspective, Christian theology to be specific, the evidence for determinism is certainly indirect - as in God never out right said he already decided everything for you, but you can still find some pretty suggestive passages from the good ol' Holy Textbook:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
— Jeremih 29:11
The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.
— Proverbs 16:9
Now, these are obviously quite subjective, and you could make a case that even if The Big Guy has set out a plan for you, you are not destined to follow it. But if we also take into account that God is said to be omnipresent and omniscient, i.e He exists at all points in time and is not temporally bound, then it's hard to logically reconcile this idea with the notion that we still have free will and the autonomy to change our futures. I haven't decided what I'm going to have for dinner yet, but God, in principle, should be able to tell me using his omniscient superpowers.
There is also an argument to be made for determinism from a scientific basis. It is based on the assumption that our brains are constrained by the same causal relationship that all physical matter is grounded in, in other words that our decisions are an effect of a set of preceding causes, and thus can be predetermined. As far as I understand the argument boils down to these assumptions:
- Our brains, and by extension our minds, are governed solely by the laws of physics and our decisions are the result of an insanely complex interaction of chemical, electrical, and physical forces
- The entire universe and all things within it are bound by the laws of physics.
- The universe started from an initial point in time with a specifically defined set of conditions (big bang)
- The laws of physics are objective, deterministic, and can be mathematically described
∴ The entire state of the universe can be calculated at any point in time, given a sufficiently powerful calculator.
Basically, the same way we can calculate the trajectory of a flying projectile, given its initial position and velocity, we could also calculate what I'm going to decide to have for dinner tonight if we knew: the laws of physics perfectly (which is possible according to assumption 4) and the complete initial conditions during the big bang (assumption 3).
Now I'm quite sure that the discovery of quantum mechanics and it's probabilistic nature has taken the wind out of determinism's sails - but my point is that the theory of determinism is an old concept, and one not completely without merit. It has some interesting philosophical consequences, and I think that Asimov was trying to touch on some of these ideas when writing Foundation. I found that the story is very much thematically rooted in determinism, in a way.
The basis for a deterministic universe in Foundation is the existence of a branch of science called psychohistory. Psychohistory is basically social statistics on steroids. By examining the state of society and various "forces" in motion, psychohistorians are able to mathematically make predictions about the future with extraordinary accuracy. Granted, psychohistory is not able to make accurate predictions about an individual's actions, as the science is still statistically based and deals with masses of humans. It follows the law of large numbers, so the bigger the population under analysis - for example the population of an entire galaxy - the more accurate the results will be. Asimov describes psychohistory thusly:
Psychohistory was the quintessence of sociology; it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations. [—] The individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs, Seldon found, could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved.
— Asimov, Second Foundation
In the story, Dr. Hari Seldon is the greatest and most important contributor to the science of psychohistory ever, and he plays a central role in the novel's plot. So how is this the same as absolute determinism? Its not, technically, but I think it has similar psychological repercussions on the characters who understand and know of it. That's what I found quite interesting in the story - the actions of characters who are fully aware of the future course of events. They act in accordance with this knowledge to support the realization of these predictions, and I wonder if that is born out of a sense of obligation, or because they believe it is inevitable, or possibly because it fulfills them with a sense of purpose?
To provide some context, at the start of Foundation we meet the previously mentioned Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian working at the University of Trantor, on the planet of Trantor, which is the capital of the galactic empire. Seldon is unshakably sure in his prediction that the empire will collapse within 300 years, and his attempts to prepare for this situation are seen as treason in the eye's of the empire, and because of the public nature of his predictions, they decide to arrest him. As the result of a somewhat but not really judicious trial, the empire decides to send Seldon and his associates, who number in the tens of thousands, to a planet to work on their preparations (of course Seldon actually manipulated those in charge of sentencing into reaching this desired decision). This planet, named Terminus, happens to be at the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and their "preparations" are, by Seldon's insistence, the development of an encyclopedia with the entirety of the galaxy's collective knowledge within it, and definitely not the organization of an anti-imperial army to overtake the galaxy.
After the resolution of Seldon's trial, the story jumps to 50 years later on the planet Terminus. Seldon has died, yet before he did he established a way of communicating messages to his followers at predetermined intervals in the future, in order to relay additional guidance and information. It is here that the "encyclopedists" as they are called, hear Seldon's first postmortem message, and we find out that his plan all along was to organize an anti-imperial army to overtake the galaxy. Seldon also describes how much their decisions have already been determined by him:
To that end we have placed you on such a planet and at such a time that in fifty years you were manoeuvred to the point where you no longer have freedom of action. From now on, and into the centuries, the path you must take is inevitable. You will be faced with a series of crises, as you are now faced with the first, and in each case your freedom of action will become similarly circumscribed so that you will be forced along one, and only one, path.
— Asimov, pg. 115
So after all that time, we find out the encyclopedia was merely a ploy, and all the men involved with its development over the past 50 years had the pleasure of hearing that first-hand from Seldon's holographic voice. I can't imagine what they must have said when they went home and their wives asked them how their day was. 50 years. 50 years of your life dedicated to something, and then a hologram of a dead old man appears and tells you he was just kidding.
The story of Foundation encompasses such a grand timescale and scope that it's easy to not pay attention to these small details, or the absence of them. I think its interesting though that Hari Seldon is portrayed in a god-like way in the story. His word is law, because he can "see" into the future, despite being dead for most of it. This brings me back to my main point about determinism, in that the characters in the story know about Seldon and of their role in his great plan to bring about a new galactic empire. They also are aware of its approximate completion date, which is 1000 years, which means they know they will be long dead before the plan is fully realized. So I'm curious as to the main motivation that drives these generations and generations of individuals to continue working in the name of Seldon, despite all of them playing such a cosmically insignificant role in its progression.
Now the main counter-argument to this might be that if you look at the actions and decisions of the "main" characters in the story, it would seem that their actions did have significant repercussions on the fate of Seldon's predictions. However, I still consider these actions trivially meaningful because, according to Seldon, psychohistory predicts outcomes for large masses, and due to its statistical nature the outcomes cannot, by definition, depend upon the actions of any individual. In other words these developments were inevitable and there were larger forces working to bring the events to fruition. Just because Salvor Hardin happened to be the one to overtake the scientists in charge of Terminus and lead the Foundation into its first militarized era, and just because Limmar Ponyets happened to be the trader that brought nucleic technology to planet Askone, this doesn't mean that their actions were pivotal and essential to the progression of the Foundation's fate which Seldon planned. The only way Seldon's predictions could be so accurate is if these events, or ones with similar consequences, were likely to happen anyways. If you line 1000 people up the same distance from a red button and tell them whoever presses it first will get $5, it doesn't matter who touches it first, but you can be quite certain before they start running that the button will be pushed.
Given this, I think the real question becomes, if these characters are intelligent and rational actors with knowledge of psychohistory and it's nature, they could come to the same conclusion I just described, and realize that their efforts in the name of Hari Seldon's plan are not actually necessary to its success. They could cease to exist completely and the new empire would continue to progress and grow. With this in mind, why do they still devote their lives to the advancement of Seldon's grand cosmic predictions? Maybe it's because, as I alluded to with the red button analogy, there is personal gain to be found in being the individual who pushes the red button, or leads the Foundation into a militarized era, or brings nucleic technology to the outer reaches of the galaxy
It's hard to really say whether the knowledge of these grand plans, or rather predictions I should call them, really have much effect on the motivations and decisions of all the individuals that are involved in their realization throughout. According to Hari Seldon, one of the basic tenets of psychohistory is the assumption that the populations being analyzed are not aware of the results of such analysis, otherwise it may alter the predictions, the assumption is that "the human conglomerate be itself unaware of psychohistoric analysis in order that its reactions be truly random".
In Foundation, it is never made explicitly clear how much the general public of Terminus knows about the course they are on, but it seems that only a select few high-ranking members of the Foundation are privy to the details of Seldon's predictions. Certainly anyone on planets other than Terminus (where the "Foundation" is established) do not have the slightest inkling of this future course of events, and my guess is that the small number of informed persons will not have a detrimental effect on the probability that the predictions are accurate. This raises an interesting point that actually contradicts my previous reasoning where I concluded, due to the statistical nature of psychohistory, that no individual could have a significant effect on the probability that a psychohistoric prediction is realized because all individuals are equally powerless to oppose the "forces" that are factored into psychohistoric analysis. However, if you had knowledge of accurate psychohistoric predictions for the future, you would be in a far better position to affect it than an uninformed individual would. This would support the notion that the actions of the characters we meet in the story have significance and non-trivial effects on the future course of events.
Regardless of the philosophical implications on the psyche's of the characters, the strange science of psychohistory made for an interesting element in the world of Foundation. I think it was a really novel concept to base a science-fiction around, and I can see why it is such a recognized and lauded series. It clearly made me think, and even now I don't think I have fully fleshed out my thoughts on psychohistory, maybe I should read the rest of the series before attempting to dissect is philosophy any more.
I enjoyed Foundation because it introduced me to an extremely rich and detailed world that Asimov invented. The story, although structured differently than a typical science-fiction novel, was thoroughly intriguing and I am curious to find out what happens in the next novels.
¹just kidding bby :)