On Asimov's Foundation
As, I suppose, many other viewers, I welcome the Apple TV series “Foundation” as a dream coming true. I remember reading Asimov’s Foundation as a kid of 9 or 10 years old. Science fiction and comic books were my path toward the appreciation of literature. I read (in the Italian translation) many novels of the golden era of American sci-fi: A.E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and, yes, Asimov. While I never quite cared about his Robot stories, I loved the Foundation ones. I was unaware of the fact Asimov was somehow loosely inspired by Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (which instead I read only recently and would recommend heartily: it is such a magnificent work), but echoes of the fall of Rome were all over. How can we make the Middle Ages run faster? That is the question which Asimov and his alter ego, Hari Seldon, asked.
Seldon is the founder of a discipline called “psychohistory”, which is a pseudo-scientific version of the old dream of forecasting the future so that you can change it. It’s been literally more than twenty five years since I read it last, but Titus Techera has a marvelous essay on our sister website, Law and Liberty, on Asimov’s work. Here’s a bit:
In the Foundation trilogy, politics as a grand imperial adventure quickly turns into a boring affair of managing social unrest while keeping productivity growing. It’s fun to outsmart barbarians in the process of modernization, of rationalizing our decisions and actions, but the result is supremely uninspiring. As a result, Asimov can believe in scientific futurism, but not that science will elevate most men. All ordinary men can do is busy themselves to become wealthy while losing their religion, their politics, and their ways of life. The Foundation’s commercial empire degenerates into despotism, on the pattern of modern regimes called “dictatorships” by people too cowardly to say they are tyrannies.
Asimov is not, after all, interested in the Roman Empire, but in our modern problem—individualism. After the three modernizing geniuses whose individuality was tied up with a great enterprise on behalf of the Foundation, the protagonists in the Foundation trilogy are no longer rulers. Individuals don’t matter in a technological society; whatever their talents, they can only cause trouble. They look elsewhere. Asimov’s theme changes from the scientific improvement of society to morality, through a quest for the meaning of psycho-history. You see, Seldon had originally started two foundations. We’ve seen the one dedicated to natural science; the other masters magical powers of mind control. Half the trilogy is about the Foundation’s quest to discover and control this Second Foundation. Seldon needed this second one, too, because after all, once you predict the future, you have to make the prediction come true. Mankind’s destiny is in the mind, not the cosmos.