Structure, Agency, and Foundation

04 Jul

I think Isaac Asimov secretly wished he had been a social scientist. Though he was a respected biochemist, his works, particularly the Foundation trilogy, privilege social scientists. At one point, Asimov even notes that the physical sciences are more lauded because their results are immediately beneficial, yet ultimately superficial, while the work of the social sciences have little immediate benefit, but in the long run yield far greater results. Asimov’s fascination with the social sciences led him to fuse his physical science training with his idea of social science (particularly sociology), to create the fictional science of psychohistory: the reduction of the collective actions of vast numbers of people into equations, enabling a skilled practitioner to predict future human behavior using advanced statistical techniques. This science is the basis of Asimov’s lauded Foundation trilogy, and to some extent the prequels and sequels (the series was awarded the “best all-time series” Hugo in 1966). This post is only concerned with the first five Foundation books, and excludes the prequels. Thus, I will only discuss FoundationFoundation and EmpireSecond FoundationFoundation’s Edge, and Foundation and Earth.

The premise of the Foundation series is simple enough: in a future so distant that mankind has colonized the entire galaxy and Earth is a mere myth, psychohistorian Hari Seldon perfects the art of psychohistory on the Galactic Imperial capital Trantor. During the process, he discovers that the Galactic Empire is in decline, and predicts that 30,000 years of barbarism will follow its collapse. However, his psychohistory allows him to see a way to reduce this period to a mere millennium by establishing two “foundations” at opposite ends of the galaxy to preserve human knowledge and provide the seeds for a new Galactic Empire even greater than before. The original trilogy deals with the people of the First Foundation, a great collection of physical scientists, who follow the “Seldon Plan” and work towards a new Galactic Empire.

Over the course of these first three books (the later two I will discuss later), Asimov comes in on a very old argument within sociology: which is more important in thinking about human society, social structures or human agency? Psychohistory, the physical science of society, is the pinnacle of the structuralist argument, though it leaves room for agency. Seldon uses psychohistory to predict history for the next thousand years, and grounds his predictions on two assumptions (plus an unspoken third assumption key to Foundation and Earth): that people to not consciously know of psychohistorical predictions, and that there are sufficiently large numbers of people to make the predictions from. In Seldon’s model, the individual cannot change history, and social forces will always triumph. However, psychohistory cannot predict the actions of individuals, who can more or less rule their own life. It is only large-scale, macrosocial events that are subject to psychohistorical principles.

Of course, the series would be relatively boring if everything went according to Hari Seldon’s plan. In the second book, an individual gains the power to change history, thus representing the triumph of agency over structure, and destroying the Seldon plan. This triumph was only made possible by a “mutation” that, in a way, made this individual no longer human by giving him the power to influence the minds of others, and thus fell outside of Seldon’s psychohistory. Thus, for the first time, the individual was not a pawn of social forces. As such, in the original trilogy, the struggle between structure, as represented by the Seldon Plan, and agency, as represented by those resisting the Seldon plan (successfully only in the case of the mutant).

In the end, Asimov explores the structuralist argument more, and when agency does come up, it is treated as an aberration that can (and maybe even should) be corrected. As such, I think Asimov tends to side with the structuralist argument more than the agency argument. That said, I’m not sure his idea of structure is completely devoid of agency. During periods of “crisis” in the Seldon Plan (which are part of the plan and only apparent crises to the First Foundation’s existence, which are resolved by the social forces already set in motion), the First Foundation is supposed to do very little and let social inertia solve the crisis for them, thus rendering individual action useless. Yet, despite his characters saying this, individual agency seems to matter; the first great Mayor Salvor Hardin and the great Merchant Hober Mallow both use what seems to be agency to solve their crises. Granted, they both make use of existing social forces, but especially in the case of Salvor Hardin and the Anacreon crisis, it seemed to be Hardin’s ingenuity and clever use of these social forces that won the day, rather than the social forces themselves. Sure, maybe if Hardin hadn’t done it someone else would have, but I am not so sure. The structure/agency question is a complex one and still the topic of much debate, and Asimov does portray this complexity well in the trilogy.

Despite the great ideas and beautiful Galaxy-building Asimov does, the Foundation trilogy does have some problems, and I think is vastly overrated. Asimov’s writing is not terribly good, and at times his grammar, phrasing, and pacing made me wince. Furthermore, his characters are utterly forgettable, and are largely the same few cardboard cutouts rehashed again and again. He also only includes two named women, Bayta and Arkadia Darrell (other women are present, but only as unnamed male attachments). However, despite these deficiencies, the original Foundation trilogy is a brilliant series that covers hundreds of years of human history, and are well worth a read.

The sequels to the trilogy, however, are an entirely different story. While the first three Foundation books more or less read like a collection of linked short stories and novellas and take place over the course of centuries, the second two feature the same cast and take place over the course of about a year. This gives Asimov more opportunity to develop characters (and, since these were written about twenty years later, his writing also improved – but not all that much), and he does. However, the characters are still a bit unconvincing and feel like cutouts, partly because they are written somewhat inconsistently (especially Trevize).

Now, I have no problems with this, but this gives the latter two books a vastly different feel. However, I strongly feel that Asimov should have left Foundation at the original trilogy and let it stand there. However, under pressure from readers and editors for a sequel, Asimov committed a cardinal sin: he tried to combine the Foundation trilogy with his other works – most notably his Empire and Robots series – into a single universe, and thus twisted the underlying plot of the latter two books almost beyond recognition, in the process destroying everything that made the original trilogy as good as they were. He destroys and dismisses psychohistory, renders meaningless all of the events of the original trilogy, and introduces several deus ex machinas and inexplicable plot phenomena to move the story along. While these two books would have made fine standalone books (with a little editing), the fact that he tied them to Foundation ruined a lot of the work he had already done, and thus I prefer to think of them as not really counting (these two sequels have also turned me off of the prequels he, and others, wrote).

So in the end, I highly recommend the original Foundation trilogy, despite its flaws. I cannot in good conscience recommend the other books in the series, but perhaps familiarity with the Empire and Robot sagas would help a reader there. If you haven’t read Foundation yet, do it, and think about Asimov’s application of structure and agency, which I feel to be at the heart of what makes Foundation so (relatively) timeless and so fascinating.

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Posted by on July 4, 2014 in Readings


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