The Future in Asimov’s Foundation

“And after you die, sir?”

“Why, there will be successors—perhaps even yourself. And these successors will be able to apply the final touch in the scheme and instigate the revolt on Anacreon at the right time and in the right manner. Thereafter, events may roll unheeded.” (Asimov 46)

In this passage, Seldon is explaining to Gaal that he has been offered exile on another world. Gaal wants to know what will become of Seldon’s mission once he is gone. The way that I interpreted this passage was that Seldon is not taking responsibility for the future. This will fall on the future generations who will have to execute the real efforts of his plans with the Encyclopedia Galactica. This is an important observation Asimov makes of the way history is shaped. What Seldon devises could turn the 30,000 years of dark-ages into a fraction of the time, but he will not live long enough to see any of this come to fruition. His prediction of the fall of the empire isn’t for another 300 years, and in this world, prolonged/eternal life is not a possibility. So in order for his plans to work, it must be the future generations that carry it on. This is something that can be seen throughout our own history. The example that comes easiest to me is the birth of the United States. After becoming an independent nation, our forefathers could only lay the groundwork for the hundreds of years to come after, with the Constitution. It has been the duty of many who came after to work towards the long-term values they sought.


The Future as Past


I do not say now that we can prevent the fall. But it is not yet too late to shorten the interregnum which will follow. It is possible, gentlemen, to reduce the duration of anarchy to a single millennium, if my group is allowed to act now. We are at a delicate moment in history. The huge, onrushing mass of events must be deflected just a little, – just a little – It cannot be much, but it may be enough to remove twenty-nine thousand years of misery from human history. (19)

Within Asmiov’s Foundation, Seldon can fairly accurately predict future events through his psychohistory, yet fails to find original methods for evading these events. As seen in the above passage, Seldon claims that the fall can indeed be reduced in time and optimistically asserts that much distress will then be avoided. Ironically, his plan of an Encyclopedia Galactica relies on the Empire’s fundamental component of organization—valuing a whole entity over its individual parts. Thus, history is depicted within the text as the influence of past occurrences on future events; there is no way of freeing oneself from the past trends regardless of any quantitative predictions. The definition of psychohistory (which Phoenix Helix also quotes below), is “a branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli”. The word conglomerates, though defined as “parts that are grouped together to create a whole but remain distinct”, is also problematic because often times grouping individuals together can strip them of their subjectivity. Ultimately, even within a Science fiction text as Foundation, which imagines highly innovative methods for predicting the future, the future is represented as imprisoned within the constraints of the past and unable to offer viable alternatives to the problem of empire.

Fate Versus Chance in History

“Psychohistory-… Gaal Dornick, using nonmathematical concepts, has defined psychohistory to be that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli… / …Implicit in all these definitions is the assumption that the human conglomerate being dealt with is sufficiently large for valid statistical treatment. The necessary size of such a conglomerate may be determined by Seldon’s First Theorem which…A further necessary assumption is that the human conglomerate itself be unaware of psycho-historic analysis in order that its reactions be truly random… / The basis of all valid psychohistory lies in the development of the Seldon functions which exhibit properties congruent to those of such social and economic forces as…” (ENCYCLOPEDIA GALACTICA, 19.)

Hidden in the quasi-academic jargon of this passage is what I think Asimov wants the central dilemma of “Foundation” to be: Fate versus Chance in history. The concept of psycho-history relies on the future of the Foundation, the Empire, and the galaxy being traceable to a set series of circumstances. Once innovation and cooperation stop being a priority, stagnation leads to an eventual Fall and collapse into barbarism. This is an outcome too far-along to stop, but the effects can be improved as long as all parties wind up in the right place at the right time. You can argue that the importance of any personal ambition falls away over thousands of years. In a kind of meta-awareness on page 89, Hardin says, “…we’ve been stumbling about, getting misty glimpses of the truth, and no more. And that is what Hari Seldon wanted.” Hari Seldon and the psychohistorians needed to keep the most-likely disasters of history secret, or else ambitious people in positions of power would eventually use these spoilers in their destructive self-interest. History, in this sense, is a series of actions driven by mob-mentality and actors that technically have the power to choose their society’s fate, if not the full awareness of how they’re doing it. There is always a chance of humanity failing to keep civilization going, but psychohistory banks on minimizing the likelihood that this happens. I think Asimov’s narrative is set up to convince us that nothing is ‘Fated’, but events can occasionally be up to 99.9/100 percent (un)likely. The continuing spirit of cooperation and innovation is the best bet to improve history regardless – at least for as long as the whole messy shebang lasts.