NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A s leaders and those they govern struggle to confront the global challenges of COVID-19, wouldn’t it be nice if a hologram from the past spontaneously appeared with a pre-recorded message telling us exactly what to do? In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, that’s exactly what happens. First serialized as novellas in the sci-fi magazine Astounding Stories between 1942 and 1950 and published as proper novels in the early ’50s, the first three books in the Foundation series provide a superficially comforting tale of technocratic triumph. But they suffer from a failure in their central conceit that both renders the works fundamentally flawed and limits their utility for our own confusing time.
The Foundation series takes place thousands of years in the future. Inspired by Edward Gibbons’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov, one of the most famous authors of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction, imagined a universe full of human settlement and dominated by a Galactic Empire centered on Trantor, a high-tech, planet-sized, megacity version of Rome. Despite presiding over billions and incubating technological achievements of which we today can only dream, this empire is about to collapse.
But only one man is confident of this: Hari Seldon. Seldon has invented psychohistory, defined in the first novel as “that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli.” Through psychohistory, Seldon can essentially predict the future of mankind; paradoxically, the more variables involved in his analyses, the better. And according to his calculations, it is too late to save the empire, but it is not too late to “shorten the interregnum which will follow,” “to reduce the duration of anarchy to a single millennium” instead of the 30,000-year Dark Age that will ensue if he does nothing. To this end, he establishes the eponymous Foundation (actually, two, though one is a secret) on a distant planet full of mankind’s best minds, ostensibly to preserve knowledge but actually to direct history toward its own establishment as the germ of a new empire. He does all this shortly before his own death, but after recording a series of messages to this elect for posterity, to be released at precise intervals of crises that he predicted. In these messages, he directs his successors on what to do to confront the difficulties he knows they will face.
Though Asimov wrote more Foundation novels, the first three books won a Hugo Award (an Academy Award equivalent for sci-fi and fantasy) in 1966 for best all-time series. But more than 50 years later, it’s hard to see why (especially when it was up against The Lord of the Rings). The novels do not rise above their serialized origins, with the individual parts of each book so distinct from one another as to seem like separate works crudely collated. They burn through a succession of stock characters, only a few of whom register in any meaningful way, and who are easily forgotten once they serve their purpose in advancing the narrative. Ultimately helpless in the face of psychohistory’s plan, most of them are rendered passive and interchangeable actors, mostly mere witnesses to the Foundation’s triumphs. As Seldon states in one of his pre-recorded messages, he has engineered their fates such that they “will be forced along one, and only one, path.”
If this were all that happened in Asimov’s Foundation novels, their reputation would be an even greater mystery. But their saving grace is the one plot development most at odds with the thrust of the books themselves: The Mule. The Mule is a mutant with the ability to control minds. He is unaccounted for in Seldon’s designs, as “psychohistory is a statistical science and cannot predict the future of one man with any accuracy.” The Mule slips through this gigantic crack. Acting almost entirely alone, he destroys the Foundation and establishes his own, new empire.
The story of the Mule’s rise and fall stretches across the second and first halves of the second and third books in the series, respectively. It is by far their most thematically and artistically unified narrative. The Mule himself is also the series’ most compelling character, more so even than Seldon himself. For a time, he disguises himself as a clown to distract attention from his designs (something that, it is theorized, George Lucas was planning with the much-loathed Jar Jar Binks, which, if he had, would have single-handedly redeemed both that character and the Star Wars prequels). And when revealed, he provides the fullest motivation and backstory of any character in the Foundation series. As a child, he failed to understand his powers fully and was mocked relentlessly for them. “But the consciousness of power came,” he says, “and with it, the desire to make up for the miserable position of my earlier life.”
Alas, to reinforce the Foundation novels’ abiding faith in a kind of hyper-technocracy, the Mule must be defeated; he is, after all, the putative antagonist. And so he is, via a series of unlikely outcomes engineered by Foundation allies. When he is gone, characters return merely to being pawns on psychohistory’s chessboard, driven along by plans most of them cannot understand, on the assumption that a select group with the right knowledge knows best.
It is a comforting tale, but ultimately a fable. Outside the confines of Asimov’s psychohistory, the real world affords far greater scope for individual choice to determine the course of human affairs. And it provides far more challenges, like the Mule, or COVID-19, that stray beyond the easily predicted and often catch our experts by surprise. It would be nice if some titanic intellect had predicted every problem we would face, and had provided the means to confront it. It is sometimes possible to anticipate what may come, though hardly in the way Asimov described. So unless we get our own Hari Seldon, for now we’ll mostly have to take things as they come.