The fantastical tale offers a still-inspiring dream of a social science that could save civilisation
There are certain novels that can shape a teenage boy's life. For some, it'sAyn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; for others it's Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. As a widely quoted internet meme says, the unrealistic fantasy world portrayed in one of those books can warp a young man's character forever; the other book is about orcs. But for me, of course, it was neither. My Book – the one that has stayed with me for four-and-a-half decades – is Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy, written when Asimov was barely out of his teens himself. I didn't grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behaviour to save civilisation.
OK, economics is a pretty poor substitute; I don't expect to be making recorded appearances in the Time Vault a century or two from now. But I tried.
So how do the Foundation novels look to me now that I have, as my immigrant grandmother used to say, grown to mature adultery? Better than ever. The trilogy really is a unique masterpiece; there has never been anything quite like it. By the way, spoilers follow, so stop reading if you want to encounter the whole thing fresh.
Maybe the first thing to say about Foundation is that it's not exactly sciencefiction – not really. Yes, it's set in the future, there's interstellar travel, people shoot each other with blasters instead of pistols and so on. But these are superficial details, playing a fairly minor part in the story. The Foundation novels are about society, not gadgets – and unlike, say, William Gibson's cyberpunk novels, which are excellent in a very different way, they're about societies that don't seem much affected by technological progress. Asimov's Galactic Empire sounds an awful lot like the Roman Empire. Trantor, the empire's capital, comes across as a sort of hyper-version of Manhattan in the 1940s. The Foundation itself seems to recapitulate a fair bit of American history, passing through Boss Tweed politics and Robber Baron-style plutocracy; by the end of the trilogy it has evolved into something resembling mid 20th-century America – although Asimov makes it clear that this is by no means its final state.
Let me be clear, however: in pointing out the familiarity of the various societies we see in Foundation, I'm not being critical. On the contrary, this familiarity, the way Asimov's invented societies recapitulate historical models, goes right along with his underlying conceit: the possibility of a rigorous, mathematical social science that understands society, can predict how it changes, and can be used to shape those changes.
That conceit underlies the whole story arc. In Foundation, we learn that a small group of mathematicians have developed "psychohistory", the aforementioned rigorous science of society. Applying that science to the all-powerful Galactic Empire in which they live, they discover that it is in fact in terminal decline, and that a 30,000-year era of barbarism will follow its fall. But they also discover that a carefully designed nudge can change that path. The empire can't be saved, but the length of the coming dark age can be reduced to a mere millennium.