Foundation: Psychohistory is a brilliant sci-fi concept

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFoundation by Isaac Asimov science fiction book reviewsFoundation by Isaac Asimov

Hari Seldon is remembered for combining principles from psychology and history into “psychohistory,” a discipline that projects humanity’s course for thousands of years into the future. Psychohistory cannot very accurately predict the actions of individuals, but large groups are less random in their behavior. Unfortunately, Seldon’s calculations predict that the Galactic Empire will soon fall—and its dissolution will give way to thousands of years of barbarism.

Seldon is not cynical: he turns his attention to manipulating a course of events that will condense the coming Dark Ages and give rise to a reborn empire. Seldon sets up a Foundation on Terminus, and dies hoping that he’s done enough to save the galaxy. Will his gambit succeed?

Foundation is usually classified as a novel, but it was originally published as a series of short stories in the 1940s. They were collected and published with an additional story in 1951. The stories chart the early centuries of Seldon’s plan as the Foundation is forced to establish itself as an independent power in the periphery while the Galactic Empire crumbles. These fix-up novels rarely work as smoothly as one would like, but for the most part Foundation stands as a novel, even if it technically does not bring Seldon’s project to its end. Still, Seldon’s project provides a narrative conflict that unites these stories.

Seldon’s project is epic in scope, which presents a more difficult challenge than plotting: none of Asimov’s characters survive long enough to take readers through the entire story. It obligates Asimov to produce many heroes, but he does not always succeed at making them interesting. Our first viewpoint character, Gaal Dornick, is dull, though he meets Hari Seldon, who is very interesting. I suppose that’s a draw. By the time the next story begins, Dornick and Seldon are gone, leaving us with Salvor Hardin, the mayor of the Foundation. Hardin is cunning and refuses to use violence to solve his problems. A win! Unfortunately, by the end of the novel, I found Asimov’s characters increasingly dull and even the urgency of Seldon’s plan had faded. In other words, I found the final third of the novel a bit of a slog, and I attribute that in part to the absence of a hero’s journey.

Does Foundation live up to its reputation? It seems disrespectful to point this out, but there is a case to be made against the novel’s timelessness. Here are a few arguments that stood out to me while reading Foundation:

  • The novel’s introduction is one of the worst I can recall reading. Most of it consists of sales figures and royalties.
  • Asimov devotes a lot of attention to the futuristic gadgets of the future, especially in the opening chapter. Sadly, most of them are forgettable.
  • Cigars and the old boys club remain very popular in the future.
  • It’s odd that the Foundation’s enemies would maintain a capacity for space travel while losing the ability to produce nuclear energy.
  • The plans that Seldon and Hardin make tend to work out a little too perfectly. The novel might generate greater suspense from disrupting Seldon’s plans and having its heroes attempt to restore culture and order on their own. Instead, the chapters read as puzzles: we know Seldon has figured a way through this mess, but will our heroes find the right answer?
  • I kept thinking that a rival Foundation rooted in psychohistory but with different goals for the future would have been a more interesting antagonist than the uncouth space aristocracy.
  • It’s hard to believe that the Galactic Empire was a force for good in the universe and that its fall was necessarily a terrible thing. I found Seldon politically naïve: for all his predictive power, he thinks only to replace the corrupt Galactic Empire shown here with another one. This may in part be due to Asimov’s inspiration: Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  • On a related note, barbarism and empire are problematic concepts, to say the least, in the postmodern era. Seldon is presented here as a fount of wisdom, but he again seems naïve by today’s standards.
  • I recall just one female character, and she appears long enough to be dazzled by a necklace before being dismissed so that the men can talk business.

Having said that, it would be hard to deny that Foundation is a classic science fiction novel. Basically, psychohistory is a brilliant sci-fi concept, so much so that this story seems thoughtful and memorable even if it at times feels more a précis than a novel. With our climate models, our enthusiasm for Big Data, and our daily predictions about elections and sports, Foundation seems to have moved a few steps from space fantasy. It may not be hard science fiction, but statistical models play an increasingly influential role in our culture. In fact, if readers were to evaluate this novel by its predictions, its greatest failure may be the assumption that we’d use advanced statistics to cultivate culture and science when we could instead devote them to gambling.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is uneven in its characters, and its plotting is a little slow. Thankfully, its central concepts about the rise and fall of civilization and the notion that humanity’s future can be projected and therefore manipulated are fascinating. Even if this isn’t a great novel, no list of science fiction classics would be complete without it.

~Ryan Skardal


Foundation by Isaac Asimov science fiction book reviewsI love Isaac Asimov’s ideas, but I just couldn’t suspend disbelief for the plot of this famous novel. The premise is that Hari Seldon, a psychohistorian, has calculated the course of history and made preparations for preserving humanity on a distant planet. I think it’s the psychologist in me that just can’t get past this premise. There’s no way that history can be predicted — there are just too many factors. Another issue I have with Asimov, and it’s so blatantly displayed here, is that though he could imagine all sorts of futuristic technology and possible histories, he didn’t seem to be able to imagine that someday women might find their way out of their kitchens and bedrooms.

~Kat Hooper

Foundation — (1951-1993) Publisher: When the Galactic Empire began dying, the great psychohist orian Hari Seldon set up the Foundation to preserve human culture & shorten 30,000 yrs. of chaotic barbarism to a mere millennium. Located on a bleak world at the ede of the galaxy, it seemed helpless before the greed of neighboring warlords. But somehow, by science & wit, it had survived & even gained control of a small federation of planets. Yet it was still small. And against it stood the great est power of all — the huge power of the Empire, mighty even in decay. When an ambitious general turned an Imperial fleet toward the Foundation, the only hope lay in the prophecies of Hari Seldon. But even Hari Seldon could not predict the birth & mutant talent of the Mule — one small man w/power greater than a dozen battlefleets. Between big & little, the Foundation seemed doomed.

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RYAN SKARDAL, with us since September 2010, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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One comment

  1. I think the stories get props mostly (solely?) for the idea of “psycho-history.” It never worked completely for me (although, now with Big Data…) but I liked it and it made me think.

    I gave up ever expecting women to have parity in any Asimov universe.

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