chaos theory and isaac asimov's foundation series

I just finished reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy – Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation – with tentative plans to continue with other books in the series except for those not written by him. However, as much as I’d like to acknowledge the importance the series has within science fiction literature, I don’t find them as interesting or complex as his robot series. In part, the issue lies with his conception of psychohistory, the fictional mathematical science of predicting future events based on a statistical analyses of the behaviour of large groups of individuals. As implemented in his stories, psychohistory predicts the decay and fall of a galactic empire followed by a long period of barbarism and chaos. The “last and greatest” of the psychohistorians, Hari Seldon, uses the science to create a plan that would reduce these dark ages from thirty thousand to one thousand years through the creation of two Foundations.

From a storytelling perspective, the Seldon Plan is much like those prophecies in fantasy novels. The Seldon Plan, which is unknown to key players on account of the fact that psychohistorical predictions won’t work if people are aware of the predictions, is such that the First Foundation can never fail. This results in stories whose protagonists must deal with key crises in a disordered, Empire-less universe by gradually recognizing the only option circumstances affords them, which means Foundation and the first half of Foundation and Empire are ultimately anticlimactic in the sense that we’re reading about characters following a prescribed plan.

Asimov mixes things up a bit in the second half of Foundation and Empire by introducing his conception of a flaw in the Seldon Plan. Where the plan deals with the behaviour of large groups, there is always a risk posed by unpredictable individuals. Hence, the Mule’s conquest of the Foundation and the rationale for the Second Foundation. Where the First is responsible for blindly carrying out the Seldon Plan based on group statistics, the Second is responsible for overseeing the plan’s execution and deal with individual threats. Again, it’s riveting stuff, but Asimov introduces a different kind of anticlimax. Consisting of psychohistorians not only aware of psychohistory and the details of the Seldon Plan but able to improve upon of it, the Second Foundation consists of telepathic people capable of predicting the future with such precision they can set into motion complex stratagems to manipulate events to their desired outcomes. So we read a story about characters who can’t tell whether they’re being manipulated or not, acting in a way that they believe ultimately supports their agenda, only for us to discover that the entire plot has been planned out by the Second Foundation from the beginning.

Critically, the original trilogy was written in the 40s-50s-60s. But it’s the 70s that saw the development of the theory that refutes psychohistory’s core premise: chaos theory, the notion that even the slightest change in a deterministic system can create wild, unpredictable variance. On a more common sense level, however, it’s clear that Asimov’s conception of psychohistory doesn’t take into account unpredictable natural disasters; an asteroid strikes the ship carrying the Prime Radiant (the device containing the mathematics of the Seldon Plan), an outbreak of an incurable infectious disease, etc.. So as much as the idea is interesting, psychohistory is as implausible as it dramatically unsatisfying. Of course, implausibility isn’t necessarily an obstacle – science fiction is speculative, after all – but Second Foundation wasn’t helped by the fact that the final revelations were predictable.

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