Foundation
October 21, 2015 3:12 PM - by Isaac Asimov - Subscribe

The Foundation Trilogy is the space epic's space epic. It follows the history of The Foundation for centuries, from its beginnings as a library on a rinky dink planet on the edge of the Milky Way, to burgeoning galactic empirehood. But before there's a Foundation, there's one guy with a plan, Hari Seldon.

"The Psychohistorians" is a prequel, written long after the other stories in the first volume. So this first post is intended as a discussion point about two things, the story itself, and the trilogy as a whole. To start the discussion, here are two questions:

What do you think of "The Psychohistorians" as a story?
How does "The Psychohistorians" set up the rest of the trilogy?
posted by Kattullus (16 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a self-contained story, "The Psychohistorians" is kinda crappy. As the beginning to a fixup novel it works very well--it shows the Empire in its waning glory and the ruthlessness of its agents; lets us see that Seldon is, after all, a man with a Plan; that the Plan had been in the works for decades; and that the ramifications of that Plan were always intended to play out over centuries.

It does seem a little at odds with its own premises (Seldon predicted that his risk of execution was low, but psychohistory shouldn't be able to predict that at all).
posted by infinitewindow at 8:19 PM on October 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh, and don't forget the cutesy, intentionally cryptic "Star's End" tidbit that Seldon can't resist waving in Gaal's face. That's very, very important not just to the trilogy but to the other prequels and sequels.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:23 PM on October 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


This book is stagy, talky, peopled by cardboard cutout characters...and I still think quite fondly of it. It's such a fascinating concept - the future is seemingly fixed, but how exactly do we get there?

And of course the idea of maybe averting the collapse of civilization. I wonder if Asimov was thinking of de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall when writing the original stories?
posted by Chrysostom at 8:42 PM on October 21, 2015 [2 favorites]


Not necessarily: Spengler's ideas about cycles of civilisation and such were a major inspiration for Golden Age science fiction . Apart from de Camp and Asimov, you also had James Blish with his slightly later Cities in Flight series.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:47 AM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


I agree about "The Psychohistorians" being kind of a crappy story. When I read it again, it felt like fan service, in the way prequels almost inevitably are.

However, I do think that it does set up the rest of trilogy in that it puts a little bit of flesh on the bones of the science of psychohistory. Asimov's idea is interesting in that it both feels profoundly wrong, yet is almost impossible to argue against. I can't remember if I thought of this idea myself or stealing it from someone else, but the way I like to think of psychohistory is it's a chemist's understanding of Marxism. If you have a big enough sample, the random fluctuations balance each other out and you can make predictions.

The idea that humanity in the aggregate behaves in predictable ways seems completely wrong to me, but it's hard for me to prove it, even to myself. That said, I'm perfectly willing to suspend my disbelief while reading the Foundation trilogy. After all, there's little point to reading it if the central premise is rejected.
posted by Kattullus at 3:02 AM on October 22, 2015


The idea that humanity in the aggregate behaves in predictable ways seems completely wrong to me, but it's hard for me to prove it, even to myself.

I don't seem to have that much trouble accepting the predictability since I usually expect stupid, short sighted or criminal behavior from humanity.

I just checked my shelves for the book and amazingly enough I still have the trilogy, which I bought in the vain hope that one of my three children would start reading sf. It will be interesting rereading it because my first and only read was its Italian translation.
posted by francesca too at 10:40 AM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


Speaking of editions... The latest paperbacks have many textual changes from the original Gnome Press editions. None of the super-important quotes change, but editors changed much of the language that clearly marked Foundation as an American work from the forties and fifties. It kinda bums me out.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:17 AM on October 22, 2015 [2 favorites]


The latest paperbacks have many textual changes from the original Gnome Press editions.

I would love to read about the differences -- do you happen to have any links to information on this, or more details on them?
posted by cjelli at 12:29 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I can't remember if I thought of this idea myself or stealing it from someone else, but the way I like to think of psychohistory is it's a chemist's understanding of Marxism. If you have a big enough sample, the random fluctuations balance each other out and you can make predictions.
Kattullus

I remember reading somewhere that Asimov did indeed base psychohistory on the idea of Brownian Motion, but I'm having trouble finding a cite so maybe I'm misremembering.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:37 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I remember reading somewhere that Asimov did indeed base psychohistory on the idea of Brownian Motion, but I'm having trouble finding a cite so maybe I'm misremembering.


My recollection was that he was thinking about gas behavior and Boyle's Law, and a quick Google Books search, turns up this, from Conversations With Isaac Asimov, writing in 1976 --
Asimov: At the time I started these stories, I was taking physical chemistry at school, and I knew that because the individual molecules of gas move quite erratically and randomly, nobody can predict the direction and motion of a single molecule at a particular time. The randomness of their motion works out to the point where you can predict the total behavior of the gas very accurately, using the gas laws. I knew that if you decrease the volume, the pressure goes up; if you raise the temperature, the pressure goes up, and the volume expands. We know these things even though we don't know how individual molecules behave.

It seemed to me that if we did have a galactic empire, there would be so many human beings - quintillions of them -- that perhaps you might be able to predict very accurately how societies would behave, even though you couldn't predict how individuals composing those societies would behave. So, against the background of the Roman Empire written large, I invented the science of psychohistory. Throughout the entire trilogy, then, there are the opposing forces of individual desire and the dead hand of social inevitability.
posted by cjelli at 1:47 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Related: This essay on pyschohistory by Metafilter's own zompist.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:48 PM on October 22, 2015 [3 favorites]


Post about the next section, "The Encyclopedists", here.
posted by Kattullus at 3:23 PM on October 22, 2015


Spoiler: the robot did it!

I read the Foundation trilogy as a young teen, and enjoyed them, and then later, in my early 20s. By then, I had learnt about things like Christianity's predestination stuff, and the psychohistory smacked too much of that.

And then he introduces the Mule, and I just didn't buy it at all, that this one man could take them all on and almost win, using his spooky mind powers. It seems a bit too "psychic phenomena" to me.
posted by marienbad at 3:50 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


I thought the Mule itself was a great idea and executed perfectly, but it turned into a slippery slope for Asimov. More when we get there.
posted by dfan at 6:31 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]


Post about the third section, "The Mayors".
posted by Kattullus at 5:50 PM on October 24, 2015


I just noticed that the two "Scientific Refuges" established by Seldon have very meaningful anagrams:
TERMINUS    =  TIME RUNS
STAR'S END  =  AND RESTS
Terminus is, of course, the active refuge that is preparing for the end of the Galactic Dark Age; Star's End is the hidden refuge that is presumed to be passive. I think these can only be coincidental, but Asimov did love wordplay, so who knows.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:10 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


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