Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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“Foundation”, Isaac Asimov

July 25th, 2009 · No Comments · ICT, Sci-Fi, Under-Rated

Isaac Asimov_1951_FoundationSynopsis: First novel (in order of release, not chronology) of the seven volume Foundation series tracing ‘psychohistorian’, Hari Seldon’s efforts to restore civilisation in the wake of the collapse of the Galactic Empire.

My Take: I’m not usually a fan of Science Fiction (and I’m NEVER a fan of fantasy. Yes that includes The Lord of the Rings – don’t even get me started). In my (admittedly limited) experience science fiction novelists too often submit to the temptation to invest too much of their imaginative skills in creating a fictional alternative world and not enough in creating depth and complexity in their characters. Similarly, to my mind, the ability to ‘make the rules’ in the fictional universe allows authors to imagine their way through some pretty improbable plot arcs. It’s a bit weak I know, but I just can’t see it as ‘real’ literature.

However, I make an exception for the Foundation series. It may be because I came upon him at a tender age, before I was overcome by my current insufferable pretentiousness, but for some reason I can forgive Isaac Asimov of the sins of science fiction writing. I can still see all of the usual shortcomings, but for some reason they don’t seem to irritate me. Go figure.

While Asimov wrote more than 500 books, and managed to get an entry into 9/10 of the Dewy Decimal System categories (striking out in the 100s; philosophy and psychology), the Foundation series are considered his best work. Will Smith and Robin Williams might have popularised Asimov’s ‘Robot Series’ in recent times, but for the Sci-Fi geeks, Foundation still reigns supreme. In fact, it was awarded the Hugo Award in Science Fiction for “Best All-Time Series”

The series tells a 500 year story arc beginning with the development of psychohistory, a branch of mathematics that could be used to predict the future at the macro-level (essentially it is like a kind of econometrics but with less grand claims). Interestingly, ‘Foundation’ has long had an appeal to economists and inspired the careers of Paul Krugman and Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google.

Using psychohistory, Seldon predicts the collapse of the current Galactic Empire (groan, I know) and the descent of man into a 30,000 year long dark-age. In an effort to reduce the time spent in decline to a mere millennia, Seldon establishes two ‘Foundations’ isolated and secluded planets tasked with preserving human progress to date and re-establishing civilisation.

How can this possibly be interesting reading if Seldon could see the future and therefore eliminate any prospect of failure for the Foundations? Well firstly, psychohistory only works at the macro-scale – it can’t predict the behaviour of small, isolated groups of people, which is exactly what is left after the collapse of the empire. Secondly, the citizens of the Foundations are not themselves aware of Seldon’s macro-predictions – such knowledge would affect the accuracy of his predictions. So the success of the Foundations in re-establishing civilisation is always in the balance – you’ll just have to read all seven volumes if you want to know whether the Galactic Empire is restored.

Highlights:

The Three Theorems of Psychohistorical Quantitivity:

  1. The population under scrutiny is oblivious to the existence of the science of Psychohistory.
  2. The time periods dealt with are in the region of 3 generations.
  3. The population must be in the billions (±75 billions) for a statistical probability to have a psychohistorical validity.

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