Foundation,  Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation
Isaac Asimov
1951 – 1953

The Foundation triology is a classic of science fiction, and perhaps the best-known of Isaac Asimov’s many, many influential and important works. The three books which comprise the trilogy are themselves only part of the larger Foundation series, which spans 7 books and has spun-off into whole other series besides.

Inspired by the real-world history of the fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation books tell the story of mathematician Hari Seldon, who develops what he calls psychohistory, a socio-mathematics which can, with some general accuracy, predict future developments based on laws of human mass action; the theory, however, is less than accurate on the small-scale, its efficacy increasing with the move from the particular to the general. Seldon predicts the collapse of the galactic empire, but his theory indicates two futures – one envisages a new dark age of 30,000 years; the other, a new empire within the next thousand. In hopes of securing the accumulated knowledge of the galaxy for the next empire, and to prevent the 30,000 year dark age from coming to pass, Seldon establishes two distinct Foundations – havens to safeguard knowledge – at the far-reaches of the galaxy, safeboxes of wisdom for the years ahead.

The Foundation books have made an enormous contribution, and not only within sci-fi or literature more broadly. Psychologists and sociologists and economisits – most notably Nobel Prize-winner in Economics Paul Krugman – have also been inspired by the concept of psychohistory and the possibility of using principles of psychology to develop a large-scale, predictive sociology.

No dystopian morality tale this. The Foundation trilogy is an exercise in predictive history based on much-respected psychological premises. To be sure, this is fiction, not fact, art, not science. But unlike the future histories of Orwell, Huxley or Bradury,  the active ingredient in Asimov’s vision is not moral crossroads but rather logical prediction of social evolution based on twentieth century cultural norms.

Advertisements