In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov wrote a series of stories that became the Foundation trilogy. This later became one of the most beloved series of novels in science fiction, America’s most successful contribution to literature. He was the first American writer to promise his readers that they could control the future and his predictions about robots especially made him an attractive author. His influence as a futurist, however, had much less to do with predictions than with helping to educate an elite, and even public opinion, to think like a manipulative benevolent mastermind, as his protagonists do.
It took decades, but Asimov’s stories ended up winning prestigious science fiction prizes and, more importantly, captured the imaginations of millions of young Americans. When Asimov eventually returned to writing Foundation stories in the 1980s, Americans had changed so much that they were making him a fortune, landing him on the New York Times Bestseller lists. Why did this futurism appeal to so many Americans? America is a land without history, to judge by the young who know very little about her past. Americans know even less, however, about the rest of the world, being too busy or restless to allow for such education. Besides, history is mostly the pre-American past: America is about the future, and accordingly deals in science instead.
These considerations have moved generations of American writers. As apostles of science, they could astonish readers—especially the young—with authoritative visions of novelty and power, which the young usually like to fantasize about. Foundation recasts the fall of the Roman Empire, once chronicled by Edward Gibbon, as the adventure of replacing a crumbling Galactic Empire. The twist is that scientists and not monks save humanity by preserving knowledge, reducing the ensuing Dark Age to a millennium rather than thirty thousand years—as from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. But this time, it’s a mathematician-hero who faces up to the fall of civilization by his models and works to fix it through a think tank.
Asimov’s short stories recall Edgar Allan Poe’s detective fiction and the style of rationalism that turns human affairs into puzzles. They typically feature a man of genius who is amused by or contemptuous of politicians, be they old and reputed or young and idealistic, to say nothing of other human types. These geniuses rebel against authoritarians and people who just aren’t curious or innovative enough—invariably, scientific reasoning and technological superiority triumph, broadcasting atheistic contempt for religion. European history is recast as a series of victories that first seem impossible, but then become inevitable. This is patterned on science, where positive knowledge is cumulative, and improves continuously.
Asimov’s protagonist, Hari Seldon, is an applied mathematician whose statistical analysis predicts the trajectory of civilization. We might label his discipline sociology, but he strangely names it psycho-history. Seldon’s science predicts the actions of the vast impersonal forces ruling mankind, transforming the irrationality of human behavior into determinist rationality. He reduces mankind to its environment, in much the same way as behavioral economists, neuroscientists, and urban planners. Thus, human beings can finally be treated like matter in motion, allowing for grand experiments and definitive predictions. Like modern physics, it allows or even demands technological application in order to prove that it is both true and good for us. Seldon’s science proves a refounding of mankind is necessary and he happily has the opportunity to improve upon the old Adam, when the empire around him collapses and he alone enjoys the wealth and followers necessary to escape its fate.
Seldon’s Foundation is a technological enterprise in the galactic outskirts, surrounded by barbarian survivors of the Galactic Empire. Its first real leader is another genius, Salvor Hardin, a man with much less claim to science, but who shares Seldon’s two most important ideas about politics. First, political rule is nothing but outsmarting your opponents, mastering the non-human conditions of conflict, and positioning oneself so that circumstances make victory inevitable. Science proceeds by demonstrations that admit no opposition or alternative: So should politics. War, honor, or personal ambition means nothing; what matters is victory without battle, sacrifices, or even any real losses. Secondly, political obedience is nothing but enlightened self-interest. Thus, Hardin creates a commercial-industrial empire around the Foundation, which amasses astonishing wealth and raises the problem of ruling vast numbers of non-scientists.
This second genius accordingly founds a religion: Barbarians must be awed into obedience before any attempt at scientific education. Seldon’s psycho-history and Hardin’s “religion of science” recall the founder of positivism, Auguste Comte (1798-1857), who started as the founder of sociology and ended founding a “religion of humanity.” Comte exercised a great influence in his day by the promise that science could offer a pattern of human affairs, based in order and aiming at progress, but he ended up doubting that it could work without great moral fervor. Asimov followed a similar path. Before dying in 1992, he had embraced every hippie piety from environmentalism to pantheistic mysticism. His post-trilogy Foundation stories are all about this need for a cosmic return to nature and a simultaneous rationalization of nature in order to both overrun the cosmos and protect mankind from self-destruction.
It may seem astonishing that Asimov’s story should begin with a confident, if cynical, rationalism that despises religion as obsolete, only to end up with an idealistic superstition that destroys rational thought. How could his great story, which starts out as science, end up as fantasy, even though every protagonist has victory after victory at every step, one genius after another?
Part of the explanation is obvious in the defective leadership. After the age of the fake religion, Asimov writes about the age of commerce, and introduces a third genius, Hober Mallow. The Foundation has gone from a mathematician to a politician with an education in psychology to, finally, a merchant who also becomes a politician. At this point in the story, scientific knowledge is degenerating; the horizons of human affairs are narrowing. Mallow, like his predecessors, is an individual of rare confidence who despises conformists, tradition, and established authority. He, too, figures out that doing nothing is the right strategy in a war and that blind faith in Seldon’s psycho-history is the right attitude. When asked about the future, he simply offers that it will take care of itself. With Mallow, mediocrity has replaced greatness, and fanaticism about Progress has set in. When this happened in Europe in the 19th century, they called this the bourgeoisie.
In the Foundation trilogy, politics as a grand imperial adventure quickly turns into a boring affair of managing social unrest while keeping productivity growing. It’s fun to outsmart barbarians in the process of modernization, of rationalizing our decisions and actions, but the result is supremely uninspiring. As a result, Asimov can believe in scientific futurism, but not that science will elevate most men. All ordinary men can do is busy themselves to become wealthy while losing their religion, their politics, and their ways of life. The Foundation’s commercial empire degenerates into despotism, on the pattern of modern regimes called “dictatorships” by people too cowardly to say they are tyrannies.
Asimov is not, after all, interested in the Roman Empire, but in our modern problem—individualism. After the three modernizing geniuses whose individuality was tied up with a great enterprise on behalf of the Foundation, the protagonists in the Foundation trilogy are no longer rulers. Individuals don’t matter in a technological society; whatever their talents, they can only cause trouble. They look elsewhere. Asimov’s theme changes from the scientific improvement of society to morality, through a quest for the meaning of psycho-history. You see, Seldon had originally started two foundations. We’ve seen the one dedicated to natural science; the other masters magical powers of mind control. Half the trilogy is about the Foundation’s quest to discover and control this Second Foundation. Seldon needed this second one, too, because after all, once you predict the future, you have to make the prediction come true. Mankind’s destiny is in the mind, not the cosmos.
Rationality has limited powers and charms. Most of us aren’t mathematicians and mathematicians have little to say about the soul, whereas mind control gets to what really interests us, ourselves. So, Asimov replaces scientists with telepaths, and a quest for self-knowledge transcends the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Thus, he radicalizes the notion of winning wars by not fighting: Progress means making human beings unable to even think of fighting. But where technology offers a good image of natural science, there is no good symbol of psychology, so it’s much harder to tell stories.
Asimov unwittingly rehearses modern politics, and his Foundation becomes totalitarian in the quest to control thoughts, with scientists torturing dissenters! He also rehearses modern philosophy, innocent of the trouble he invites. He can command public assent to the importance of technology, industry, and commerce; but regarding telepathy, how do you establish authority, demonstration, or distinguish wisdom from foolishness? So, his storytelling climaxes in a deus ex machina. The science trilogy ends with a comical religion, flattering the prejudice that knowledge, power, and morality converge in a kind of cosmic hippie who can defeat techno-tyranny by the ultimate power of positive thinking!
It’s no accident that rationalism collapses into pantheistic mysticism in Asimov’s later Foundation stories, where there are living planets, where all organisms live in harmonious telepathic communication, while also retaining their individuality. The politics of self-interest leads to the psychology of individualism. Once we start looking into the self, all certainty, if not all hope, is lost. Is the self anything but social conditioning? If conditioning is the effect of social science, what causes social science, indeed all science? Asimov shows the self as cause or as knower in engineering and mysticism; both answers become boring.
American Cold War Power
Asimov’s psycho-history is a version of the theory of Progress best articulated by Hegel and most famously put forth by Marx, but generally much beloved of Europeans in the 19th century. Asimov continues this habit of judging the present by an imagined future, acting on the belief that scientific procedures guarantee a bright future. What makes a choice worth choosing is that it’s inevitable and any alternative is madness. This is the politics of positivism, the theory according to which only modern science really produces knowledge. It has only one story to tell: That of rebellious genius enlightening an ignorant, hostile world. Asimov sold it better than any other American writer, but eventually stopped believing in it.
But America loved it. European Progress, admittedly, ended up with catastrophic, suicidal World Wars. But after 1945, America was untouched by destruction and had instead become the greatest power in world history! Progress was alive and well—suddenly, a vast state apparatus was constructed to wage war and it delivered victory by using new technologies, climaxing in nuclear power, while daring new social theories promised to organize society rationally. Science fiction had predicted this as far back as H.G. Wells, but it took this new world of the Cold War and the Space Race to make it dominant. Now, technology could be patriotic or humanitarian and also revolutionary—it could be transformative.
Catastrophic conflict was both recent in memory and threatening to break out anew. Strange new powers were being developed, and mankind seemed free of its history, ready for a new adventure under American leadership. This was a time for science fiction to reinterpret history and to write a history of the future, without which, of course, science itself would be blind, lacking motivation or conviction. Where are we going and how do we know it’s a good idea? Amateur prophets like Asimov had the answers and got in the business of stoking and reassuring American restlessness, not least because no other authority wanted to take care of educating the young.
Human nature, however, reared its head again. The prophets of science gradually came to ask themselves about the meaning of life and of humanity, beyond security and wealth. Since their storytelling was arrogantly utopian from the beginning, they easily turned scientists into telepaths. This turned out to be the great legacy of science fiction, not a turning of American education to seriousness about science, but the turning of elites into aspiring mind controllers through technology and psychology. We lack these futuristic technologies today. Our children do not learn advanced mathematics. Nevertheless, we do have elites trying to install a technological tyranny. It’s not clear whether Asimov would be on our side or on theirs.
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