Scholars, Diplomats, Merchants, Kings

A Review and Analysis of Foundation by Isaac Asimov

This review and analysis as a whole contains plot spoilers, but the Introduction and Conclusion contain a minimum of plot details.


As a teenager, I played a video game called Final Fantasy Tactics. My assessment of Tactics was that it was a perfectly fine game, but I didn't like its story very much. It wasn't until I was much older that I was able to suss out why. The story's primary focus is on empires, kingdoms, dukedoms, and other political entities in the game, their relative rises and falls, their intrigues, etc. rather than the characters. The characters, to me, felt rather hollow. Rather than people, they were simulacra, conveniently moving into in the right places at the right times to make the plot work.

I got the same kind of feeling from Foundation by Isaac Asimov. However, every small movement of Foundation embodies a coherent attitude toward humanity and cultural change that is fully consistent with its characters being treated in this way, and thus provides a richer context for exploring the human condition.

Like Puppets

The Galactic Empire is millennia old and enormously powerful. Its seat of government is the capital planet Trantor, situated in the galactic core. From there, all the thousands of inhabited worlds in the galaxy are administrated.

Enter Hari Seldon, a mathematician who has developed a science called psychohistory, which enables him to predict the future path of humanity (not individuals, but society as a whole) far into the future with great accuracy. Seldon is currently on the outs with the Imperial administrators because the results of his most recent psychohistorical calculations have leaked, and they predict the utter collapse of the Empire in five hundred years' time.

In Seldon's time, such an outcome seems inconceivable. The Empire is galactically omnipresent and omnipotent. However, Seldon maintains his stance, and asks for permission to start up two colonies, opposite one another at the farthest fringes of the galaxy, where scholars will record into a great encyclopedia all the knowledge of humanity, so that the ensuing dark age after the Empire's fall can be reduced from thirty-thousand years to a mere one thousand.

Seldon's associates head out to the distant planets of Terminus and Star's End, and each begins their great project. The narrative follows those who emigrated to Terminus while the events at Star's End remain a mystery.

Seldon also has built on Terminus a chamber called a Time Vault. At specific intervals, the Time Vault opens, and a recording of Seldon appears. The first of these happens fifty years from Foundation's founding, shortly after the Empire's political control over the outermost provinces has collapsed. Seldon tells his followers, who have been diligently crafting an encyclopedia for nearly two generations, that the encyclopedia writing was a sham, a diversion so that the Empire would not feel threatened by Terminus and Star's End.

The real work, Seldon tells his followers, is now to begin, in the form of navigating the politics of the small kingdoms that are rising up to fill the void left by the recently vacated Empire. But he will not divulge the full scope of his predictions, since that would enable an individual to change it. He has intentionally kept the science of psychohistory from his followers.

This particular movement of the plot is interesting in that it suggests that there is no true "freedom" from dominion. Seldon's followers may have quit their stagnant empire of control and domination, but they find themselves wholesale subject to the thousand-year plan of their leader's creation. Who in this situation is not a pawn? Even rulers are ruled by the very power they wield over others.

The novel's characters exhibit a level of depth commiserate with this role, but the rise and fall of the multitude of political entities remains compelling, mostly because of the tension created between characters' individual political motives and the context that Seldon's looming historical presence creates.

In Final Fantasy Tactics, the characters were portrayed as the liberating, individualistic forces, expressing a singular will on the corrupt political entities surrounding them. Foundation is more interesting because the "liberating" force itself cannot escape coercion and control. Seldon's prophetic maneuvering of his own people creates a more interesting dynamic. Is he even at the top of the Foundation hierarchy, or is he himself also controlled? Can a force that necessarily overrides individual will be called "good"? When Seldon appears at the fifty year mark, his message alters their entire society. In a moment, they change from being research-driven to politics-driven. He is capable of ruling Foundation society decades and centuries after his death.

It is in this tension that Foundation feels most true. At times in our lives, we are all subject to being coerced by forces more powerful than ourselves, whether that's on the scale of our workplace manager or our country's political apparatus. And the results of that coercion are not necessarily bad (despite what extreme individualists might think).

Foundation's characters must navigate a world in which they are certainly being used, but in which the tension between their own desires and what they think would be best, are very much in their control.

How much did Seldon's psychohistory predict? Could they be inadvertently straying from his path without them or him knowing it?

The Logical Man

Of course, underlying the whole concept of a supposed science of psychohistory is the idea that human behavior can be subjected to mathematics and thus accurately predicted. This will undoubtedly strike most modern readers as somewhat ridiculous, and yet it also speaks to the zeitgeist of the 1950's, when it might have been believed that, despite the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics and other discoveries in the physical sciences, that just maybe science would become capable of describing even the most complex phenomena, including human behavior.

In reality, human behavior is far too dynamic to be the subject of a mathematical science. Far from being able to predict thousand-year future political configurations at 98% accuracy, such a science's probabilities would drop to near zero after only a few days or weeks at most. In his introduction to the Folio Society edition of Foundation, Paul Krugman compares this to the phenomenon of predicting weather patterns, which exhibit just this pattern of predictability, and the same sensitivity to minute changes.

My favorite expression of science circumscribing human behavior in Foundation was the depiction of a field called Logical Symbolism. During the period when the Foundation was ruled by a scientific council, the governing scientists at one point find that they must interpret a treatise they have received from a nearby kingdom. However, legal jargon makes no sense to them, and they are all perplexed as to the treatise writer's intent. To discover its intended meaning, they decide to apply the principles of Logical Symbolism to the treatise, and are thus enabled to generate a derivative document that contains only exactly what the treatise's author meant when he wrote it. They apply the same science to recordings of conversations with a visiting politician and discover that everything he said "cancelled itself out." In other words, he said nothing of substance, even though he was ostensibly communicating.

Though anachronistic, the treatment of human social behavior as mathematically circumscribable is very science-fictional in that it forms an internally consistent theory of human nature supported by many elements within the text. The notion itself may not have aged particularly well, but it is interesting from a historical perspective, much as are elements of sf terminology that elicit the 1950's, everything from the prevalence of atomic energy as a signifier of high technology to terms such as "atom blaster" and "force shield."


The attitude of the inevitability of power and control as defining features of human politics is ultimately found deep within the novel's substructure–even after humanity has gone to space and spread out across the galaxy, we find ourselves still reenacting the Roman empire, still very much subject to all the ills of human politics, still victims of ourselves. For this very element, some might call Foundation anti-science fictional, but I would argue that the spotlight Foundation shines on the themes of power and control represents a more nuanced analysis of those themes than such detractors give it credit for. The novel must also be given credit for its recognition of violence as a form of barbarism.

We may not be able to predict humanity's future any more than we can predict next month's weather, but the idea that we could build an empire worth living in through careful thought and planning rings true, most especially if the story depicting such a theme gives its revolutionaries ambiguous motives. Foundation compares favorably in this regard to other works of its time, and even those of today.

ReviewsMatthew BuscemiComment