Thursday, 31 July 2008

Foundation trilogy, by Issac Asimov


In the far future, the Empire rules the galaxy. Hari Seldon, a mathematical genius, has realised that while in the same way that one cannot predict the behaviour of individual atoms of a gas but you can that of a fluid, the mathematics of psychohistory can predict the behaviour of a society. Seldon applies this to the Empire and realises that it is collapsing and will lead to 20,000 years of barbarism before a new Empire can arise. To reduce the anarchic period to only 1,000 years, he arranges the creation of two scientific foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will grow and form the new Empire.


Scene setting and the initial expansion of the Foundation

Foundation and Empire

The Foundation overcomes the last gasp of the old Empire, but is conquered by the forces of the Mule

Second Foundation

The race is on to find the Second Foundation between Foundation refugees seeking help and the Mule seeking final victory

Other books in the series

  1. Prelude to Foundation – a prequel looking at Hari Seldon and how he created Psychohistory
  2. Forward the Foundation – the conclusion to Prelude to Foundation
  3. Foundation’s Edge – the Foundations realise that there is another power at work in the Galaxy: Gaia
  4. Foundation and Earth – the Foundation searches for humanity’s forgotten birth place: Earth


Isaac Asimov was born Исаак Озимов or Айзек Азимов in Russia in 1920, before immigrating to America with his family in 1923. He earned a PhD in Biochemistry and was a professor the Boston School of Medicine. He died in 1992 aged 72.


Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

This is the most widely quoted reference. Asimov modelled the Galactic Empire on the Roman one and its collapse from within from decadence and from without by barbarians (ie without atomic technology).

America following the end of World War Two

Having been long overshadowed by the British Empire, in the years of the writing of the Foundation trilogy (40’s to early 50’s), America became the dominant world superpower by means of its atomic weapons and the collapse of the British Empire. The Foundation is thus a proxy of post-war America. While America was allies with Britain during the war, it was the heir to the British Empire in a similar way to the Foundation being heir to the Galactic one.

Major Characters

Hari Seldon

While Hari Seldon only appears in person in the first book, the character’s influence resonates through all three in the form of the Seldon Plan. This predicts the fall of the first Galactic Empire and reduces the 30,000 years of barbarism to only 1,000, when his two foundations form a new galactic empire

The Mule

While Psychohistory can not predict and is not influenced by individuals, The Mule disproves this assumption as he is a mutant with mind and emotion control abilities. The Mule is a genetic mutant where his mental powers are offset by his deformed body and sterility. Thus his empire, which is similar to Alexander the Great’s, is doomed to collapse on his death.

The Foundation

While Foundationers come and Foundationers go, the First Foundation, based on technology and physical sciences goes on.

The Second Foundation

Like the first Foundation, the second is based on science; unlike the first it is science of the mind – psychology. It plays no part in the story before the arrival of the Mule in the second book. There follows three searches for it: the first for its aid, the second and third to destroy it. On this third attempt, the Second Foundation arranges that the First Foundation will appear to be successful and put an end to the Second’s existence.


Freewill vs. predestination

While the behaviour of a single molecule of gas is unpredictable, when you have sufficient quantities then their behaviour becomes fully predictable. The physics of gasses gives rise to guiding principles such as Boyle’s laws. Similarly, Asimov postulated that while an individual was unpredictable, people in their billions and more are, thus changes to society can be predicted in the same way we predict the weather using psychohistory. The problem with this is that such systems only work if they are closed and that all data is known. With the weather, we know the system starting point (current weather reports) and energy input to the system (the sun and coriolis forces). It also relies on the physical laws remaining constant. Similarly, Seldon formulated the “laws of psychology” as applied to population masses. The underlying assumption is that humans react the same to outside influence regardless of differences in culture. Also, that individuals have no significant influence on society. We now know that the laws of chaos make it impossible to know the weather in sufficient detail to predict accurately: hence the butterfly effect. In fact, the Met office only predict with confidence three days in advance. Similarly, psychohistory only stays on track of the predictions through external agencies correcting social drift from the ideal path. This is an option not available to the Met Office!


This is mostly dealt with in the first book and touched lightly on the sequels. Asimov’s belief, like a number of other SF writers of his generation and many scientists today, believe that religion is caused by ignorance of science. In Foundation, the Inner Kingdoms are controlled by the Foundation through the atomic religion. This religion is essentially without morals or spirituality on the part of the Kingdoms. Morals and spirituality do not feature in the Foundation, only cynicism and manipulation.


Deus ex machina

An unexpected power or event saving a seemingly impossible situation, especially in a play or novel. [ L translation Gk, = god from the machinery] Example: in War of the Worlds, the Martians are unstoppable by human efforts but are beaten by simple Earth viruses. Normally a frowned on literary device, as it suggests a cop-out of providing a suitable and satisfactory solution to the problem that the characters are faced with, but it is the central theme to the Foundation trilogy under the guise of the Seldon Plan. That is: Psychohistory. Foundation – the fledgling Foundation is faced with a series of impossible crises, but each are solved but the heroes doing nothing and thus allowing the deus ex machina to act Foundation and Empire – the first half is a continuation of the theme of the first book, where the deus ex machina continues to function against the remnants of the Galactic Empire. The second shows the destruction of the plan but the actions of one man: the Mule. Second Foundation – shows how the guardians of the deus ex machina are the Second Foundation, who are the heirs to Hari Seldon himself and the science of psychohistory. The first half has the Mule attempting to destroy the Second Foundation to protect his empire, while the second has the deliberate apparent destruction of the Second Foundation by the first. The reason for this suicide is that the Seldon Plan, that is the deus ex machina, cannot function while the Foundation expects the Second Foundation, the operators of the machina, to act. As “the plan helps those who help themselves”, the paradox is that Foundation must destroy the deus ex machina to allow it to operate. Later books reveal that while the First Foundation is unwittedley guided by the Second, the Second is likewise controlled by Gaia, who are in turn controlled by AI robots who are controlled by Asimov’s Three laws of Robotics. The ultimate god from the machinery is actually a machinery god.


Atomic power / superiority of technology

The first atomic bomb had brought the Second World War to a close only a couple of years previously, nuclear power plants were proposed and America’s rise to super-power status was due to its adoption and mastery of fusion. At this time, America was the only nuclear power, just as the Foundation was the only users and creators of atomic energy and weapons. Thus both were the de facto dominant power. The problems with Asimov’s handling of technology are:
  • That the Foundation as a scientific colony with copies of all suitable records becomes technologically advanced is logical, that the Empire with the same knowledge forgets everything, is not.
  • Psychohistory depends on society remaining consistent, but technological advances are unpredictable. You only have to look at the effect of the Industrial Revolution on British society to see the effect such advances make.
  • Asimov wrote the Foundation trilogy before the existence of computing was publicised. While computers were used during the war to decode German codes, that information was still top secret. Thus the computing is completely absent for the first two books and is only introduced in the third book as the Lens star chart and the Transcriber vocal recognition machine.

Psychology / Psychohistory

While the actions of an individual are unpredictable using psychology, with sufficient numbers the reactions of society can be predicted with such accuracy that history can be plotted out in advance: psychohistory.
Some aspects of psychology in the books do not ring true for me:
  • That the Mule can control people’s emotions and fix loyalties is acceptable in the context of a SF novel due to his mutation. That the Second Foundation through three hundred years of studying psychology can achieve the same is not believable and forms an uncomfortable element to the Second Foundation novel.
  • I find that the Second Foundation’s non-verbal communication an unnecessary and distracting motif


***** genre defining classic