Jack Butler at the National Review calls Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series a “comforting technocratic fable.”
I loved the Foundation Trilogy when I was a boy. I listened to the audiobook of “Foundation” recently and was not moved to continue on. It doesn’t hold up.
Lately I am inclined to see the heroes of that series as badly misguided. Another writer might have even called them villains.
One of the fundamental problems with the premise of the series is that it assumes that human beings don’t have free will.
Asimov was by training a scientist. He was a Ph.D. in chemistry. And one of the fundamental lessons of that science comes from the study of the behavior of fluids. Liquids and gases. Individual molecules behave randomly and are completely unpredictable. An individual molecule in a liquid or gas might move in any direction at any time. There’s no way of knowing.
But if you put trillions of molecules of fluid together, they become completely predictable. Water flows downhill.
Asimov presumed the same thing for human behavior. Individual humans are completely unpredictable. Even billions of humans, the population of the Earth, cannot be predicted. But if you assume the entire GALAXY is settled by humans, billions of Earths, with a population in the TRILLIONS, you have a population that is completely predictable.
That’s the made-up science of psychohistory in Foundation.
But it doesn’t exist. And it would be terrible if it DID exist. As Cory Doctorow points out, if you could know the future for certain, what would be the reason to get out of bed in the morning? Particularly if the future is BAD. If you’re a Jew in Europe and it’s 1928 and you can predict the future with certainty, do you even want to be alive at that point?
That’s one of the problems with the Foundation Trilogy.
The other problem is alluded to in Butler’s description of the series as “technocratic.” Asimov gives us a choice between two lousy forms of government: An empire – in other words, a hereditary dictatorship, like North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Or government by bureaucrats. We never encounter a planet governed by a democratic government with a robust civil service that serves the will of the people. Nope.
Indeed, when I look back on science fiction from that period, I see a lot of galactic empires presented as benevolent, and other forms of benevolent dictatorships. You have to wait until Star Trek until you get something truly resembling representative democracy.
And the OTHER problem with the Foundation Trilogy is that it’s just plain old-fashioned. The prose and storytelling style has not aged well. The characters are flat and one-dimensional, and the action takes place offscreen and is described in dialogue.
Nonetheless, when I revisited the first novel recently, I did find charm in the retro-future vision. When Asimov imagines someone from the outer planets visiting the Galactic capital of Trantor, we see Asimov himself: A leading individual in one of the golden times and places of American history, immigrant New York from around the turn of the century to the 1950s. Jews and Italians fled hard lives in the old country and became Americans, and helped build America. My own parents grew up in that milieu; if I had a time machine it’s one of the times and places I would most like to visit.
And the Foundation Trilogy WAS among my favorite books when I was a kid. If I identify problems with it now, that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment then.
Nor does it take away from my admiration for Asimov, who was and is one of my heroes. He was far from a perfect person in his life, but who is?
As Alec Nevala-Lee writes in his recent book “Astounding,” a history of science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s (recommended), when Asimov conceived Foundation, he was a teen-ager in New York, reading about the news of the Nazis rolling over Europe, and threatening America, with the Holocaust killing people just like himself, his family and friends. He dreamed of a world where he could somehow find assurance that everything was going to be ok.