One of the things that gets much discussion in the writing community are so-called “rules of writing” that go around on social media. Like Moses bringing the tablets from Mount Sinai, people are all the time posting quotes from famous writers like Stephen King or Elmore Leonard, telling writers to do or not do various things.
Foundation is the greatest rebuttal to this I’ve ever seen. You’ve been told that a book shouldn’t have too many points-of-view? Foundation has at least five; more like ten. You’ve heard that books need to have description? Foundation has next to none. And above all, you must have heard that you’re supposed to show, not tell. Foundation laughs in your face. The whole book is nothing except telling.
Whether Foundation might have been better had it followed these rules can be debated. But Isaac Asimov was the Vice President of Mensa and Foundation is a classic of science-fiction. It at least proves rule-following is not essential to success.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book begins with Hari Seldon, a scholar in the field of psychohistory, which is a science that makes sweeping predictions about the fate of civilizations over the course of millennia. Seldon foresees the collapse of the Galactic Empire he lives in, and has made a plan to manipulate events such that a Second Empire can be restored in a thousand years, give or take.
The later parts of the book follow various political figures, religious leaders, merchants and scientists, many of whom are carrying out the pseudo-religious duties laid down by Seldon’s foundation. Periodically, a “Seldon Crisis” will occur; that is, a major inflection point in the re-development of civilization that Seldon foresaw in his detailed models of how the future would play out.
The book is actually a series of short stories compiled together, and in some ways, that shows. None of the different characters are around long enough for them to be really fleshed out, but the dilemmas they face are interesting, as are their ways of resolving them. In a way, it feels to me like a forerunner of the original Star Trek, in that each situation presents some moral or ethical situation for the characters to work through. (Another reason this book is perfect for Vintage Science Fiction Month!)
The book does have a detached, maybe even downright cynical view of history. And of course, it’s materialist through and through. Don’t look for larger-than-life heroes here. It’s really more like science fiction as conceived by the Hanseatic League.
Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has said that what first interested him in the field of Economics was that it was the closest thing to Hari Seldon’s “psychohistory”: a science that tries to synthesize knowledge about how populations behave and use it to make predictions about the future. This concept appeals to me as well. I have a Bachelor’s in Economics.
Of course, not many people look for excuses to talk about economics when they’re reading escapist fiction. They call it “the dismal science” for a reason, after all. Partly, this is due to an early association with the work of Thomas Malthus. Malthus was the Hari Seldon of the 19th century, in that he too tried to use models to predict the fate of civilization. Unfortunately, his model wasn’t quite right.
And thus, the fundamental problem with economics: models are never perfect. As Paul Samuelson once remarked, “the stock market has predicted nine of the last five recessions.” And so, the question nags at me: would this work? Given sufficient computing power, could you actually predict events the way Seldon does? It seems theoretically possible, I think. Or does it? Because after all, we don’t know what we don’t know. You may think you have accounted for every possible variable, but there are always other variables you didn’t even know were variables.
One of the frequent assumptions made in simple economics models is perfect information, meaning everyone in the market knows everything about the relevant market at all times. Of course, this is never, ever true, which means the models themselves are not in fact accurate; just approximations of what “should” happen.
If someone actually had perfect information, they would be, effectively, a god. I think that’s actually Asimov’s point in Foundation, since Seldon’s plan becomes essentially a religion after a certain amount of time. “If God did not exist…” etc. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” also applies.
The problem with trying to map out the future like this is much the same as the problem with laying down rules of writing like those I mentioned at the beginning of the post: it leaves no room for things that organically just work, even though by all accounts they shouldn’t.
So, what is my final verdict on Foundation? Er, well, sorry to disappoint you, but… I haven’t got one. H.R.R. Gorman has convinced me that I need to read more of the series before I form an opinion. All I’ll say is this: the book was interesting enough that I’m going to read more.