Science in Fiction: Isaac Asimov and Psychohistory

Reading

Have you ever noticed we’re always reading the same books?

Today’s recommendation is near and dear to my heart, since I’ve been reading Asimov for nearly twenty years. As you’ll see, I’m far from uncritical, but I love his work despite its flaws, and I hope you will too.

Isaac Asimov is sometimes called the Grand Master of Science Fiction, and there’s no doubt that he’s been hugely influential over the last 75 years. This man was pretty ridiculous—he wrote and edited over 500 books, on a huge variety of subjects, both fiction and nonfiction. (It seems he was interested in everything, which I definitely relate to.)

Asimov’s science fiction output alone was impressive. There’s much more than I can get into here, but his best-known works are the Foundation books, which started as a set of short stories that became a trilogy of books, which then had a pair each of prequels and sequels tacked on. Asimov eventually created a loose framework that tied together the Foundation books, three stand-alone novels, his four Robot Mysteries, and the short stories featuring roboticist Dr. Susan Calvin, which first introduced the Three Laws of Robotics.

Monica and Robot Laws.png

Hey, what’s this zero doing here? This wasn’t in the original!

I first read the Foundation trilogy in fifth or sixth grade, and the whole series ended up being pretty (sorry) foundational for my development as a scifi enthusiast. Even as a less discerning reader, I had mixed feelings, which still holds true today. On the one hand, the scope of his ideas was so broad and fascinating! On the other hand…did this guy ever get to know any actual women or children?

This combination of sweeping big-picture ideas and seeming indifference to the nuances of character development (especially in his earlier work) is why, of all the topics I could discuss in Asimov’s work, I’m focusing on psychohistory. As the name suggests, it’s a combination of psychology and history. There’s an existing field of study that goes by this name, which tries to explain past history, especially on the individual scale, using the insights of psychology.

That’s more or less the opposite of Asimov’s vision, which involves using statistics and knowledge of human herd behavior to predict general trends in the future development of galactic history. The Foundation is set up by wise old mathematician Hari Seldon as a bastion against the chaos that will result from the collapse of the Galactic Empire, and his mathematical predictions should bring them through and initiate a new galactic order, given two assumptions:

  1. Predictions are made for sufficiently large population sizes and time periods that statistics can apply.
  2. The population under consideration is unaware of the predictions being made.

As you can tell from these assumptions, psychohistory (and, in my opinion, Asimov’s writing) relies on being able to take something of a bird’s-eye view, acknowledging that it is useless to focus on the actions of an individual. This works just fine, as long as certain unstated assumptions about humanity continue to hold true…which would definitely never be a concern over the course of multiple books spanning several centuries.

The first few Foundation stories chronicle, in a sense, the growing confidence of the Foundationers, who’ve been entrusted with keeping it together while the Empire falls apart. They have all sorts of crises, caused and/or solved by the swashbuckling adventures of secret agents and smugglers, and are constantly reassured that the outcomes of these crises are right on track with the Seldon Plan’s mathematical predictions of societal behavior.

I’ve seen Foundation referred to a lot as hard scifi, which I take some issue with. There are plenty of hyperdrives and stun pistols and so on, but the central scientific concept, to me, is the psychohistory, which is not very “hard” at all. I don’t say this because it’s a hybrid of mathematics and social science (which can definitely be very “hard science”) but because it’s so darn hand-wavy.

In fact, probably the only thing that could make it hand-wavier would be—actually, at this point you may want to skip ahead to the next illustration if you don’t want the general plot arc spoiled. (That includes all seven books, not just the original trilogy.) In defense of spoilers, I will say that for me, Foundation’s charm lies in its vision and adventurous spirit, not in its plot twists, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.

As I was saying, the only thing that could be hand-wavier is the Second Foundation, which comes to light when the Seldon Plan diverges from reality for the first time. This is a secret cabal of mathematicians with psychic powers who’ve been keeping an eye on things and tweaking as necessary from the outset of the Plan, with the full knowledge of Seldon himself. That’s right, rather than a hands-off watchmaker scenario, we’re dealing with a group that can manipulate human history for its own ends. This violates one of those unspoken assumptions of psychohistory, which very much does not plan on psychic powers.

I’ve always found this both cool—secret psychic librarian mathematicians!—and intensely discouraging. Where’s the scientific rigor? “Oh yes, our pinewood derby car ran perfectly, once we sneaked over and put the wheels back on illegally during a break.” I’m torn between feeling bad for Seldon, who knew his mathematical magnum opus was being supplemented by these behind-the-scenes shenanigans, and wanting to shake him for allowing the whole thing to go forward.

Then, of course, things get even worse when it comes to light that all along, a shared intelligence has been waiting in the wings, hoping to spread across the galaxy and encompass all human life. (This also violates the assumptions of psychohistory, which expects that humans are alone.) Long story short, one guy gets to decide who controls the whole galaxy’s future, one of the human Foundation factions or this group-mind, and he picks the group-mind, with the strong implication that his experiences have been manipulated to influence his “free” decision.

I dislike this turn of events mainly because I like the idea of psychohistory so much, and this pretty much guts it. Instead of being an unprecedented understanding of the trends and currents of human society, it ends up as a tool that’s manipulated at will by humans and ultimately superseded (in fact, destined to be all along) by this overpowering galaxy-mind.

I just don’t like that resolution, and that’s a personal opinion rather than a plot critique. Interestingly and frustratingly, I’ve never been able to tell from Asimov’s tone what he thinks of it himself. He seems to just sort of present it, like, “well, this is what’s happening now,” and if he tries to sell it as a good thing, it never convinced me.

Now for a non-spoilery illustration to throw the non-spoiler readers off the scent!

Seldon

Seldon, pretty much. (Psychohistory tip: avoid specifics.)

All of that discussion is my attempt to express why these books were near the top of my list of scifi that uses its science really well. What I first loved, and still love, about them is the grand vision, spanning hundreds or even thousands of years. Asimov’s imagination really shines on this scale, much more so than at the level of individual characters, and so psychohistory is the perfect science for him. It’s a vast undertaking for a vast narrative, and I think few people would disagree that the result is truly inspiring at its highest points.

Just don’t expect too much from his character development, and you’ll really enjoy yourself.

[Special thanks to the late Larry A. McKeever, who narrated the Foundation audiobooks that I listened to multiple times. You made high school homework so much better, Larry!

First-time Asimov readers, I’d recommend you start with I, Robot and feel your way from there. If you like robots and mysteries, try The Caves of Steel next. If you’re feeling more like a romantic space opera mystery, try The Stars, Like Dust, or go right on to Foundation if you want a series of short stories to start you off on the decline of the Galactic Empire.

I’m a fan of reading in publication order within each of the series, so I recommend reading the original Foundation trilogy, then the sequels, then the prequels. (Foundation’s Edge is the best, but only after the trilogy!) After you’ve read all Asimov’s stuff, you can go to the authorized companion books, the Second Foundation Trilogy (named for being the second trilogy, not the Second Foundation) and various others like Psychohistorical Crisis.

Oh, and I spent hours on this Geocities site back in the day. I’m thrilled and amused that it’s still around.

It’s a big Asimov canon out there. Have fun!]

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4 thoughts on “Science in Fiction: Isaac Asimov and Psychohistory

  1. Did I ever mention that one of Levance’s email addresses was *hariseldon@xxxxx.com *?

    One of my all time favorite stories has no science and flat as a pancake characters: Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God.”

    On Fri, Apr 28, 2017 at 11:11 AM, Something of the Marvelous wrote:

    > SomethingMarvelous posted: ” Today’s recommendation is near and dear to my > heart, since I’ve been reading Asimov for nearly twenty years. As you’ll > see, I’m far from uncritical, but I love his work despite its flaws, and I > hope you will too. Isaac Asimov is sometimes called the Gr” >

    Like

  2. Great post! I do have one little terminology correction: the little car whose wheels came off would be either a soap box derby or a pine wood derby car – roller derby is an entertaining and insane team sport. Look it up – it’s fun to watch.

    I am inspired to re-read the Foundation trilogy. Well done!

    Love, Mom. P.S.: Dad is scheduling something for tomorrow at 5:30 our time. Maybe we can talk later.

    On Apr 28, 2017 11:11 AM, “Something of the Marvelous” wrote:

    SomethingMarvelous posted: ” Today’s recommendation is near and dear to my heart, since I’ve been reading Asimov for nearly twenty years. As you’ll see, I’m far from uncritical, but I love his work despite its flaws, and I hope you will too. Isaac Asimov is sometimes called the Gr”

    Like

  3. Pingback: An Introduction to Fractals | Something of the Marvelous

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