When I was a kid, the books that got me into science fiction as a literary genre were the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov. I loved Star Wars and Star Trek, but until I read the Asimov’s books, I never considered that science fiction stories could be conveyed with words rather than images. Since, then I have read many examples of the genre, but that first encounter has remained with me ever since.
Recently, the Foundation books have served for me as an example of a beloved childhood experience that does not live up to the cherished memories. I recently reread the first book in the series and discovered that the characters were completely flat, there was no sense of the world they inhabited, and the stories were almost devoid of action. What exactly did I see in this book as a 14-year-old?
The answer is that what Foundation lacks in literary merit, it makes up for in concept and philosophy. Asimov’s books propose the idea that science, in the form of his invented psychohistory, can use the power of data and mathematics to predict the future and thus save humanity from tens of thousands of years of barbarity. The idea is incredibly compelling and intriguing.
The series, which has finally been turned into an Apple TV+ series after being considered well-nigh unfilmable, has inspired many other more famous science fiction works, from Dune to Star Wars, but perhaps its most enduring influence is on a whole generation of real world social scientists. After all, we do have mountains of data and sophisticated computer models to predict future outcomes. Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman “wanted to be a psychohistorian saving galactic civilization. Econ was as close as I could get.”
Whether an actual science of psychohistory can be achieved is debatable, although there is at least one academic who believes he has cracked the code. What interests me is the context of Asimov’s work and its implications for today. As I was watching the TV adaption, which in the three episodes I have seen is rather underwhelming, I was struck by the connection to today’s climate change debate. At a trial, Hari Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, pleads with his audience to realize that the empire they all live in is going to fall no matter what. The only question is whether humanity can soften the blow from 30,000 years of dark ages to a mere 1,000. I couldn’t help but think about the climate situation we live in today. There is no way to prevent the widespread alteration of our environment, but we can take steps to lessen the impact.
Asimov, writing in the 1940s as a young Jewish scientist, was not thinking about the climate, but rather the potential destruction of western civilization during World War II. While he wasn’t a practicing Jew and considered himself an atheist, Asimov was proud of his heritage and I do detect Jewish themes in Foundation. The work centers on a group of people dedicated to preserving knowledge, exiled from their homes, despised by those around them but clever enough to succeed despite their limited resources. He might as well be describing the Jewish people.
I remember thinking as a kid that psychohistory was a real possibly, but as an adult, I am skeptical. Asimov was a humanist, but the downside of humanism is its tendency toward determinism. If someone can predict with mathematics the future of the human race, what real choices do we have? Are we not then robots (another favorite subject of Asimov’s) merely acting on our programing? In fact, throughout Foundation, a hologram of Hari Seldon periodically appears to reveal to the characters that the current crisis they are experiencing is all a predicted part of the plan.
For me, the power of Jewish thought lies in our ability to choose: life or death, good or evil. We have free will and we can change. In other words, we humans are unpredictable. Maybe the future looks bleak sitting as we are in the midst of a global pandemic, looming climate disaster, and political polarization, but it’s not psychohistory that will save us. Only our choices can do that.