Foundation: "The Encyclopedists"
October 22, 2015 3:22 PM - by Isaac Asimov - Subscribe

Science fiction fandom was introduced to the Foundation and psychohistory in a 1942 short story called "Foundation". When it was collected in a book, it was renamed "The Encyclopedists". It is the story of a library on a worthless planet on the far edge of a collapsing empire. And it's the story of a small city mayor who rises to the occasion presented to him by history, becoming one of the most beloved heroes of science fiction, Salvor Hardin.

Reading this story today, it's not hard to see why it caused a stir. It's zippy and manages to create a human drama from something as colossally huge as the workings of galactic history. Part of the power of the Foundation series is that sense of inevitability. It's the same effect as reading a historical work. If you're reading a novel about Augustus, you know that he'll end up as ruler of the known world, but it's interesting to follow his struggle. The early Foundation stories have the same sense of what happens must happen, but crucially the reader doesn't know the outcome beforehand.

Salvor Hardin is a strange character. For all his guile and charm, Seldon makes clear that he could have been anybody, that every person in his position would have seen the same solution. This goes straight to the heart of what makes the early Foundation stories philosophically unnerving. As far as psychohistory is concerned, individuals are meaningless. Any single person is as important to society as a single atom is to a cloud of gas.

So my discussion questions are these:

How important is Salvor Hardin to the story? Would the story have the same force with any other character?

Is psychohistory simply another word for the concept of the "laws of history", or is there something else going on?

Discussion of previous section, "The Psychohistorians", here.
posted by Kattullus (10 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It's not so much that Salvor Hardin could have been anybody, more that the person who took control of Terminus should not have been an encyclopedist. Let's be fair, in this story Asimov does not present the reader with any real alternatives to a Hardin coup. If Mayor Hardin had been hit by a computobus, one gets the idea that some sort of junta comprised of Yohan Lee and Jord Fara or Tomaz Sutt would have stepped up in his place eventually, but things would have been much worse for the nameless million non-Foundation residents of Terminus.

I personally think that Salvor Hardin was the best possible choice—someone used to personally taking power but only to achieve certain ends, ambitious but not megalomaniacal, and not prone to violence. There are much worse founding fathers for a nation to have.

As to psychohistory vs. the laws of history, I think that for Hardin and his subjects, the two terms mean the same thing, and are only useful as national symbols. At the end of this part, there is simply too much on Hardin's plate for him to be worried about Seldon's plan. We, as savvy media consumers of a completed trilogy, understand that there's likely something else going on. I do wonder what the first readers in 1941 of this story (then titled simply "Foundation," with no Psychohistorians prologue) thought.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:08 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

My recollection is that Asimov had no idea what the actual resolution to the crisis would be when he wrote the ending but figured he was sure to be able to come up with something by the time he had to write the next Foundation story.
posted by dfan at 6:21 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do wonder what the first readers in 1941 of this story (then titled simply "Foundation," with no Psychohistorians prologue) thought.
The original "Foundation" story did have a brief prologue, which was excised in the book since it became redundant.
posted by dfan at 6:24 PM on October 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's that original prologue. It clears up something that's always bugged me, what the exact quote was that characters refer to when discussing the Second Foundation.
posted by Kattullus at 4:52 PM on October 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

dfan, that makes sense, especially with the section's last line, "Obvious as all hell!" Ending a short story before the denouement, confident you can retcon/finesse it away in your next short set thirty years later? Now that's chutzpah.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:37 PM on October 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

By the way, it turns out I got that from The History of the Positronic Robot and Foundation Stories (link is to part 1 of 6), which is a really nice history of all of Asimov's Robot and Foundation works (of course you will get spoiled if you read ahead too far).
posted by dfan at 9:59 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Post about the next section, "The Mayors", here.
posted by Kattullus at 5:51 PM on October 24, 2015

This part barely mentions psychohistory by name, and doesn't explain what it is at all. Its introduction mentions the "psychohistorians of Trantor", and the only other mention I saw is this:

"And after the Fall will come inevitable barbarism, a period which, our psychohistory tells us, should, under ordinary circumstances, last for thirty thousand years."

So, reading this story alone, it's reasonable to think psychohistory is something like the laws of history. Interesting, I had not realized it started out this vague.

Reading Foundation as a whole, it's a mistake to try to equate psychohistory with any known concept, because the point of it is to be a uniquely SFnal concept.

I wonder if Foundation was the first SF to contain such a concept? Of course, it's common now for SF about the singularity to involve such things.
posted by joeyh at 11:43 PM on October 27, 2015

Oh, I forgot, this section has my favorite bit - where they do a symbolic analysis of the treaty between Anacreon and the Empire:

The treaty ran through five pages of fine print and the analysis was scrawled out in just under half a page.
"As you see, gentlemen, something like ninety percent of the treaty boiled right out of the analysis as being meaningless, and what we end up with can be described in the following interesting manner:
"Obligations of Anacreon to the Empire: None!
"Powers of the Empire over Anacreon: None!"

posted by Chrysostom at 8:15 PM on October 28, 2015

where they do a symbolic analysis of the treaty between Anacreon and the Empire

And the analysis of the Imperial diplomat's ramblings. I like Hardin's grudging admiration of him.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:38 PM on November 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

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